Laila Ibrahim: On Characters Throughout Decades
Laila Ibrahim is the bestselling author of Golden Poppies, Paper Wife, Mustard Seed, and Yellow Crocus. She spent much of her career as a preschool director, a birth doula, and a religious educator. That work, coupled with her education in developmental psychology and attachment theory, provided ample fodder for her novels.
She’s a devout Unitarian Universalist, determined to do her part to add a little more love and justice to our beautiful and painful world. She lives with her wonderful wife, Rinda, and two other families in a small co-housing community in Berkeley, California. Her young adult children are her pride and joy.
Laila is blessed to be working full-time as a novelist. When she isn’t writing, she likes to take walks with friends, do jigsaw puzzles, play games, work in the garden, travel, cook, and eat all kinds of delicious food. Visit the author at lailaibrahim.com and find her on Twitter and Facebook.
In this post, Laila discusses how she returns to her characters, and their descendants, over the course of each story, including her new novel, Scarlet Carnation, the unique timing of the history of her story and present day, and more!
Name: Laila Ibrahim
Literary agent: Annelise Robey
Book title: Scarlet Carnation
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Release date: April 1, 2022
Genre/category: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction
Previous titles: Golden Poppies (2020), Paper Wife (2018), Mustard Seed (2016), Yellow Crocus (2010), Living Right (2016)
Elevator pitch for the book: In an early 20th century America roiling with racial injustice, class divides, and WWI, two women fight for their dreams in a galvanizing novel by the bestselling author of Golden Poppies.
What prompted you to write this book?
After writing Mustard Seed, the companion to Yellow Crocus, I got the idea in my head that I would return to the descendants of these characters every 20 years or so until I got to the 2000s. Scarlet Carnation is the fourth in the series.
I enjoy starting with the constraint of knowing a character’s family history and then researching the geographical and social setting shaping their current lives. The thematic through line in all of my novels is “How does the American caste system harm my characters, and how do they create beautiful, faith-filled, and open-hearted lives despite disappointments, while challenging the oppressive structures they were born into?”
How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?
I started researching this novel in Spring 2019, and it will be in readers hands in Spring 2022, so nearly three years, which was definitely extended because of COVID.
Scarlet Carnation was the second of a two-book contract, so I had no structure at the start. That freedom made me less secure about the story when I submitted my first draft. COVID certainly added strains to my life that caused me to be unsettled in a way that I wasn’t confident that I had a good kernel.
When I first read about Ishi, I imagined he would be a major character, but he ended up in the edges. A few beta readers suggested that his thread be dropped, but I valued his place in this story, which seemed similar to George Floyd’s presence in my life in 2020. George Floyd’s killing is an example of an enormous tragedy embodied in one human’s story that deeply impacted me, even though it wasn’t happening to anyone close to me. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, and a source of despair, but also holds hope that his tragic death can make us a better society.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
Settling into writing was not something I could do at the beginning of COVID. I had to push back writing deadlines, which felt unprofessional and embarrassing. But Lake Union and my editor Jodi Warshaw were so generous and compassionate. I’m deeply grateful.
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
While researching images from Armistice Day, I was surprised by the face masks on the people celebrating. When I started writing Scarlet Carnation in January, 2020, I knew the story would most likely end on November 11, 1918, with my main characters in public wearing masks.
It was a stunning synchronicity to have a new pandemic rage around me. COVID raises the same debates that were in the newspaper during the 1918 Influenza: Are masks helpful? Should we have vaccines? Whose wellbeing do we prioritize? What is the balance between personal liberty and the public good? Does faith have any role in health? How do we prioritize mental and emotional health against physical wellbeing? And who do you trust in seeking out information when science is “still speaking?”
A dear friend, Gogi Hodder, was diagnosed with Mucosal Melanoma in April 2020. Because of COVID, she only had physical contact with a very small circle of people— and I was one of them. It became pretty clear that she would not survive for a year. Writing the death scene in Scarlet Carnation felt like preparation for being with Gogi as she died. I shed many tears as I let myself feel into that scene.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
That life is complicated. We humans often have to make moral decisions with incomplete information. Those moral questions are more easily answered in hindsight than in the moment. I suggest taking the time to slow down and really let in the questions, to make the best decision you can given your values, and then move forward. Self-reflection is a useful tool; regret can be a good teacher if you learn from that emotion, but not if you wallow in it.
If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?
I find I jumpstart my writing when I go on a retreat that lasts a few days. It doesn’t have to be a formal retreat. Rent an Airbnb with a friend or two that also have a project. Spend as many days as you can spare immersing yourself in your story. I get so much further on my novels when I do that. I can edit at home, in the hustle and bustle of life, but it is hard to get to the really creative meat of my story at home.