#LoveOzYA Q&A with Samera Kamaleddine for HALF MY LUCK
Samera Kamaleddine is a Sydney-based journalist who spent the early part of her career writing for teen magazines including Dolly and Girlfriend. HALF MY LUCK is her first novel.
Check out Samera’s chat with #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios below, or watch clips on our YouTube channel!
HALF MY LUCK was the inaugural winner of the Matilda Prize, and it’s out now. If someone picks this up in a book store, what can they expect?
At the heart of it, HALF MY LUCK is about 16-year-old Layla. Layla has a Lebanese dad and Australian mum, and she very much feels kind of torn between those worlds, and like she doesn’t know which of those she fits into.
There’s an inciting event, and that kind of becomes a catalyst for her to go on this journey of trying to reconcile with her community’s reactions and also explore these feelings she didn’t know she had, which is also the same journey I went on writing it, with things like empathy and perspective, identity, belonging.
So there’s a lot happening, but it kind of comes down to this concept, which the title gives away: What is luck? Layla feels so unlucky, and goes on this journey of asking: What does it actually mean? Is it even real?
Do you remember the first kind of germ of the idea, and where it came from? Also how it developed over time?
Yeah, this isn’t the story I thought I was gonna write. I did what every writer is told not to do and I quit my job. I was like, I’m gonna write a book, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I had this other idea in my head of what I wanted to write, and it could have been a nice story, but it just didn’t have any heart.
Then I found, buried in my computer, that a few years ago, I’d written what is now the first page of this first book, pretty much. It was exploring that funny, comical side of having this ethnic grandmother and family. Because for me, that was something so embarrassing — my dad’s English wasn’t great, my friends thought he was hilarious, nothing translated culturally.
So I thought, I’ll write this funny story, and put it away and never look at it again.
And then when sat down, as I say, to write this story that I thought was going to be the book, and it wasn’t, I went back to that page and went well, maybe this is where I need to go?
So it became a cathartic release, a little bit. It started getting quite emotional as it went on. And none of it was planned. I’m not a plotter. So even I didn’t know what was going to happen at the next corner at the next turn of the page.
It was this weird journey for me to go on, alongside by Layla.
On the quitting your day job decision — what things did you weigh up in making that call? Because on one hand it’s a high-stakes move, but on the other, it’s such a clear display of self-confidence, that you’re going to back yourself to produce a book.
You’re suddenly accountable. I think for a lot of people, you’re sort of writing this book in the closet, right? It’s so personal, and you don’t even want to know yet because you’re not sure if it’s gonna be successful. But I kind of put it out there. That was really, really scary, to say to everybody, ‘I’m quitting my job, because I’m writing a book.’
For me it was also months and months of being in quite a high-stress job, and getting to a point where I felt burn out. I thought, if I don’t stop now, I don’t know what will happen to me from an emotional point of view.
I took some time. I went to Jordan. I had this holiday. A few months passed — it was what my friends and I called the Summer of Samera, for any Seinfeld fans out there — and I was literally just going to the beach. I kept justifying it everyday, and that I would get to the writing of the book.
Then I did a course with the Australian Writers Centre, and that was a major step in being proactive about it. Initially I thought I was going to have a really gyspy approach to it all, and that’s just not how it worked. So I finished the course, got an undated desk calendar, worked out how many days it would take me, if I wrote 1000 words a day, to get to 50,000 words, and literally wrote on every day ‘1000’.
Each day, it became a habit that I had to cross that off. I had to commit and be accountable.
It took me four months to write that manuscript. And then I felt like, right, it almost came to a year of having quit my job, and felt like I had something to show for that.
And I mean, it all worked out!
I’m lucky it did!
I also wanted to ask about how Layla feels like a ‘halfie’, caught between her Lebanese and Australian identities. What did you want people who do relate to that experience to take away from HALF MY LUCK, and what did you want those who haven’t grown up with that cultural context to take from it?
A quote that I really liked, and resonated with me while I was writing, was ‘empathy is power’. And I think that’s just something that was just in the back of my mind constantly while I was writing, because it’s all about perspective, isn’t it? And not to give too much away, but there is a second point of view in the story. I felt like it would be remiss of me not to have a second that second point of view from someone who Layla perceived to be on the other side of another culture.
I just really firmly believe that there’s a reason why people behave the way they do. And I’m a bit obsessed with (asking) why does someone act like that? What is going on in their life that you don’t know about?
It was important for Layla to understand what’s going on in two different parts of this community, what’s going on behind the scenes, what learned behavior that comes from the adults in their lives and their families.
Words are so powerful. We’re in the words business, we know the power of them.
Totally. Now, I think your journalistic background was with Dolly magazine. I just wondered, how did having that experience in teen culture and content creation inform how you went about writing this book?
I was barely out of teenagehood when I started working at Dolly, I was 19. I was changing myself, and living and breathing this magazine. It was so surreal.
I’m just really fascinated by that time in our lives and that life stage. When do you ever get that time again, where there’s so much intense self discovery, and so much passion, and also just that opportunity to really find out what causes you want to get behind?
I think from my experience, that (teen) audience is so engaged, and so passionate. Like, I guess this could have been an adult novel. But I just think that’s just not showing enough respect to that teenage audience to assume that they are being serious and feeling those things, and also wanting to ignite change.
I also kind of feel like I’ve got one foot still in that stage of life, to be honest.
On winning the Matilda Prize — had you sent the manuscript out to many people before entering it in the prize?
Yes, I had sent it to a couple of places and I got really positive feedback. It was really detailed feedback of what they liked and didn’t like, which I thought was actually really nice. I think you’re supposed to be devastated by a no and a rejection — I feel like I got the loveliest of rejections.
Then when I saw the ad for the Matilda Prize, and it just resonated. It was all about Australian stories, and this book was intentionally written in a very Australian setting. I didn’t want it to be ambiguous.
But I never thought I’d get close to winning!
Well, congratulations, you did! What was the experience like for you after winning the prize and going through the editorial process?
There’s so much to learn. It was a completely new world, and so different to the writing that I knew. (The manuscript) was in pretty good shape, apparently, so it didn’t have a huge structural edit, but it was really interesting, pulling it apart, and having other people question a character’s motivations, or question a character’s background.
There are so many things as a writer that are in your head — because obviously, I know them — but that doesn’t mean a reader is going to know! So that was really interesting. It’s so interesting, just hearing how someone else perceives a character’s intentions and yeah, the whole story.