Sara Nisha Adams is a writer and editor. She lives in London and was born in Hertfordshire to Indian and English parents. Her debut novel The Reading List is partly inspired by her grandfather, who lived in Wembley and immediately found a connection with his granddaughter through books. She recently talked about The Reading List with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Reading List?
The Reading List is very much inspired by my love of books and libraries, and for a long time I’ve felt that books not only provide us company, but they also help us connect with others. On occasions when I’ve found it hard to open up about myself, a book has given me the words I needed—and I think that libraries are places that epitomize this, bringing people together when we need companionship and community the most.
Your biography states that Mukesh was, in some ways, inspired by your Grandfather. Has your Grandfather read The Reading List? What did he think?
My maternal grandfather often used to ask me what book I was reading, whenever I came to visit. In his house, my family spoke mainly Gujarati, a language I couldn’t speak myself, so, the shy child I was, I would hide away behind a book. My Dada, who was also fairly reserved and quiet like me, recognized that books were the way into my world, so by asking me about the stories I was reading, he helped me open up about myself too! Mukesh also recognizes that books are the way into his granddaughter’s world—so my dada was in many ways the start of this story, though Mukesh himself isn’t really like my dada at all (except for the flat cap). My grandfather passed away when I was fourteen so he never knew he would be the beginning of a novel I wrote, but I hope he knows how important those small moments were for me, taking my reading book in his hands, reading out the title, and letting me tell him the rest.
You mention in the Acknowledgements that your Grandmother read the book. What was her reaction?
I lost both my grandmothers within a few months of each other over the last year, which was completely heartbreaking as both were so important to me, and my relationships with all my grandparents have informed relationships and characters within the book. And they helped me become the person I am today. My Granny, my paternal grandmother, did get a chance to read an earlier version of the book—we got a draft printed and bound for her, so she could see it in book form, and my Auntie read it out to her. They finished reading it together just before she died. She loved the descriptions, the characters, and thankfully my Auntie took out all the swear words...Granny never liked those. She always used to ask me how my writing was going, and because of her, I kept going. She had such a firm belief in me that I would one day be a published writer, and it breaks my heart that she never got to see a finished copy of the book itself on a bookshop shelf or in a library—but I hope she’s proud.
Are Aleisha or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
No one is based on specific individuals, but I think there is a lot of me in every one of the characters—from Mukesh to Priya, to Aleisha, to Leilah, Aidan and Naina too. They’re also made up of different characteristics of my loved ones too, I think. Aleisha is very similar to me when I was a teenager—and Mukesh’s bumbliness is also classic me! I think Naina is a mixture of my dad and my mum, and all my grandparents—their wisdom and generosity shine through in her. The characters feel like family to me, because they feel like people I know so well, and they’re definitely a tapestry of people I’ve loved throughout my life, so I hope other readers love them too!
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
Broadly the ideas and themes didn’t change very much, but the importance of the reading list became more prominent with each draft—the peripheral characters, who discover the reading list, were new too, and I love them because they capture exactly the spirit of the reading list itself, and its ability to inspire and connect strangers from far and wide, which is what I wanted the book to achieve. There are some scenes that vanished entirely, mainly scenes of Mukesh and Aleisha going about their days where nothing of note happened—they were really a chance for me to get to know the characters even better, and to spend more time with them. No one needed to read all that but me!
Libraries in, and near, London have been struggling to survive for a while now. Was the closure, the threat of loss, or the rescue of your own local library branch the inspiration for what happens with the Harrow Road Library?
My local library, in Hertford, a little way out of London, was one of my favourite places when I was a child—it was in this amazing building that used to be a church, with a grand staircase, and tonnes of bookshelves—and it closed down for a while before relocating a few years later. I realized, with great sadness, that in that time, lots of young people wouldn’t have a place to go to sit quietly, to discover new books and new worlds. We regularly hear about funding cuts to libraries, which breaks my heart because libraries provide people with access to so many books and multiple resources. They’re vital for readers of any age and for communities—they’re safe spaces, they bring people together, they inspire people, they keep people company. Harrow Road Library itself is fictional, but it’s inspired by libraries I’ve known and loved—libraries that may not necessarily be full of brand-new technology, but are nevertheless hubs of the community and loved by the people who use them. Even the smallest libraries can have a reach that extends far and wide, and I wanted Harrow Road Library to convey that—it might be small, and not quite as popular as some of the bigger libraries in its area, but it’s loved and vital for the community who thinks of it as home.
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
So much! I don’t think I realized how strange it would be letting the book go out into the world—it feels like it’s not really a part of me anymore, as it now belongs to readers. I’ve heard so many sayings about this, but never really realized I might feel a little bereft when it happened. So, I’d say cherish those quiet moments when it’s just you and the book. I was almost too impatient for the whole ‘being published’ process to begin, I don’t think I savoured those moments editing quite as much as I should have!
What’s currently on your nightstand?
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
There was one book that was passed around from friend to friend, that was so battered I don’t even remember the title or the author! It was about dating and sex, told from a boy’s perspective—and we all read it, completely intrigued and terrified at the same time. I’m pretty sure we all hid it under our beds from our parents.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things—because I think about it all the time, the prose completely inspired me, and because I’m pretty sure it solidified my desire to write. I’m sure I’ll never write anything as amazing, but it makes me want to push myself and do better every time.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
Still Life by Sarah Winman—I read it really recently and want to keep reading it again. The characters are so vivid—and so much happens, there are surprises at every turn, and so many moments that made me leap for joy, so I’d love to read it again for the first time.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Mae Martin’s Feel Good, Season 2. I love this series—and I keep rewatching episodes, out of order, because I don’t want to accept the series is over. The writing is brilliant, it tackles such important topics with sensitivity and a lightness of touch that allows it to be both incredibly thought-provoking and intelligent, but full of comfort and companionship too.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Given I’ve spent so much time separated from my family recently, I would want to be with my mum and dad, watching TV, eating my mum’s cooking and reading.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
Which of The Reading List characters do I wish I could meet in real life?And it would be Naina—because I feel like I know her so well, and I have so many questions to ask her. I’d love to know what she thinks of the book...given she’s such a big reader!
What are you working on now?
I’m working on another novel, in a similar vein to The Reading List but with brand new characters. It’s about community and lonely souls finding friendship again, but with a garden that brings people together this time. It has a whole new cast of characters who are quite different from Mukesh and Aleisha, but I’m loving getting to know them.