The Story Seeds Podcast

Bonus Q&A: Betsy Bird Interviews Susan Muaddi Darraj

Episode Summary

On this bonus episode, host Betsy Bird chats with Susan Muaddi Darraj (author of the debut middle grade series Farah Rocks) about her collaboration on a mystery story seed with 12 year old Sulaf in last week’s episode, “A Girl Who Looks Like Me.” They talk about why representing Arab-American girls like Sulaf matters in children's books and about being inspired by the works of Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe. Plus, Susan shares her tip for getting through writer’s block—reading! *Spoiler Alert* Susan also reveals who’s behind the disappearing objects in her story, "Mystery at the Theatre."

Episode Notes

Listen along as The Story Seeds Podcast host Betsy Bird chats with Susan Muaddi Darraj (author of the debut middle grade series Farah Rocks and a 2014 AWP Grace Paley Award, 2016 American Book Award, and 2016 Arab American Book Award winner). They go behind the scenes and talk about what it was like working with 12 year old Sulaf on Episode 8 “A Girl Who Looks Like Me” and grow her story seed about a young Arab-American girl who finds herself at the center of a mystery at the theatre where she works. 

Susan talks about how Agatha Christie, Edgar Allan Poe and her visit to the Riverside Theater inspired the story she grew. Sheds light on the contemporary authors she admires: Jarrett Lerner, Toni Morrison, Esmeralda Santiago.  And, she shares two tips for young writers and our listeners:

Books and media mentioned in this episode: Farah Rocks series by Susan Muaddi Darraj, Hercule Poirot Mysteries by Agatha Christie, Miss Marple Mysteries by Agatha Christie, Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Netflix's Anne With an E, The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

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Show credits

Credit to Matt Boynton and Ania  Grzesik of Ultraviolet Audio for the sound mixing, design, and score of our bonus episode. Our theme music is composed and performed by Andrew VanWyngarden. 

The Story Seeds Podcast is a creation and production of Literary Safari

Episode Transcription

Betsy [0:00]: Hi Story Seeds Podcast listeners. Your host Betsy Bird here. Welcome to our bonus episode. One of my favorite parts of this job is that I get to talk to all the authors we are featuring on the podcast to get the behind the scenes scoop on their experiences and writing life.


Betsy: [0:28] This is Betsy Bird, host of The Story Seeds Podcast. 

I'm here with Susan Muaddi Darraj, author of Farah Rocks Fifth Grade. It's the first installment of a new chapter book series about fitting into middle school, told through the eyes of a spunky Palestinian-American girl. 

Betsy: [0:46] So what was it like meeting and working with Sulaf? 

Susan: [0:51] She is such a joy. I mean, she's so much fun and, you know, they took us to the Riverside Theater and we were just like exploring it together. We had a wonderful guide who was taking us through and showing us the different, you know backstage areas and some of the tech stuff. And she and I just started exploring on our own and taking... I gave her my cell phone camera so she could take pictures. We had a great time. She's so fun. She's got this incredibly rich vocabulary, which I love kids like that. When I meet kids who are so articulate, they just they make my heart sing.

Betsy: [1:32] Well, if you guys really clicked, I mean, you both were fans of Agatha Christie, which was just this neat ...

Susan: [1:36] Yeah.

Betsy: [02:35] ... little coincidence that I you know, nobody could have known beforehand,

Susan: [1:41] Exactly. That was really neat

Betsy: [1:43] For those of you who don't know, Agatha Christie is probably, I would say, the greatest mystery writer of all time. Some people would obviously disagree but ...

Susan: [1:50] I would say the same. Yes

Betsy: [1:51] But...

Susan: [1:52] I say that.

Betsy: [1:53] Good, good, good. Have you ever written a mystery?

Susan: [1:56] I have not, I have not, but I will tell you that I read so many mystery novels when I was Sulaf’s age probably. I remember going to the public library and reading my way through all the Agatha Christie mysteries, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and all of these books. I mean, I was obsessed with those books and I saw the Mouse Trap in London years ago as well. So I've just been a fan of hers for so many years.

Betsy: [2:26] Yeah. Have you ever collaborated with anyone? I know you were collaborating with a kid for like right now, but have you ever done any sort of writing collaboration before?

Susan: [2:37] Interestingly, my my book series is sort of a collaboration with my daughter because she inspired me to write it and she's my in-house editor. She reads all of my favorite books and manuscripts and gives me feedback on them. So in a sense, I have collaborated with my daughter. I've collaborated with other writers in terms of editing anthologies and things like that, but never and actually creating a story and a set of characters before.

Betsy: [3:05] Yeah. And with a with a kid at that, how old is your daughter?

Susan: [3:09] She's 14 now, but when I started writing The Farah book when she was about eleven.

Betsy: [3:13] Ok. So you have probably the most experience of anyone ever on this podcast before of actually collaborating with a kid on a regular basis.

Susan: [3:23] Right. Right, exactly. And they’re a lot of fun. They're very honest editors and they give you honest feedback, which is terrific.

Betsy: [3:30] That is terrific. That is true. Now, at first, the 

producers were searching for a mystery writer to gross a loft story seed, but then Sulaf, who is Syrian-American, she told them that she wished she could be actually matched with an author of Arab descent, someone who could create a character who sort of looked like her and who could represent the girl like her. So can you tell me, what would this match meant for you in light of that?

Susan: [3:57] You know, I started writing my own book series 

because I just saw such a gap in children's literature in terms of Arab-American characters. And so when they told me that Sulaf had requested a writer of Arab descent, that just confirmed for me that kids in my community really need to see own voices, authors. They need to see themselves in books. It just was a confirmation for me that there was such a need out there. And so it was very special to me that she requested that. 

Betsy: [4:31] Yeah, and you spoke to Sulaf about the importance of representation in children's books. You talked about windows and doors and mirrors And and you're at your book Farah Rockss 5th grade, which just came out features an Arab-American characters experience in middle school. Where did that book come from?

Susan: [4:55] So my daughter said to me one day, a few years ago... she was reading of Green Gables, which is a book I loved as a kid. And so I was very excited that she was reading it. And we were talking about it and we were talking about the new Netflix series starring ... you know Anne of Green Gables and it’s is called Anne With an E. And it's a great series. We were watching it and reading the book together. And she said to me, I really wish there was a book that had an Arab girl in it. Someone like Anne but like someone who's also Arab. I just wish there were Arab girls and books that I have, that I read. And it just really struck me that I've been asking that question as well. I ask that question when I was her age. So why why do we still have, like, you know, 30 years later, why is there still this gap in literature, for Arab-American kids? You know, why are there so few books? I can really only name a handful of middle grader Y.A. novels with Arab characters in them since the 90s. So I just I started writing the story for her, really, and she liked it. And I kept going with it. And I wanted to make sure it was a story that showed an Arab American girl in a non-crisis situation. In other words, it's just a girl kind of living] her life, dealing with the average problems that kids deal with. And so I just kept going with it and it just spun into this like, you know, twenty five thousand word novel. And it just you know, it became something I really became attached to the character of Farah. Her name means joy in Arabic. And I became attached to her because she really is such a fun, spunky character. And that's how she was born.

Betsy: [6:48] It's great. And I know exactly what you mean. If I do see an Arab American character in a book, it tends to be a very serious book dealing with very heavy issues in some way. And your book is fun.

Susan: [7:01] Thank You.

Betsy: [7:02] It’s enjoyable to read and it's just it's just lovely. 

Susan: [7:06] And I think we need the whole spectrum of experiences represented. You know, we really do. But Arab kids cannot keep seeing themselves in books as victims of racism or victims of Islamophobia or victims of war. I mean, we can't just keep showing them. We can't keep holding up that mirror. You know, there needs to be a wider representation.

Betsy: [7:28] Mm hmm. Now, I said you're one of the few people who actually has experience working with kids when it comes to writing, but you actually are also part of a member mentorship program with schools.

Susan: [7:40] Yes.

Betsy: [7:41] What is your work with young people about there?

Susan: [7:43] So I'm in two different programs. One is called Kids Need Mentors, and it's a program that the writer Jarrett Learner is involved with. And he invited me to sign up to be a mentor. And it's been wonderful so far. This is my first year. I am paired up with a wonderful third grade class in Herndon, Virginia, at Crossfield Elementary School there. And I visited them twice. And I sometimes send them stickers and bookmarks and things like that. And I'm sort of like, you know, like a writing mentor for them. Like, I think they're going to have a writing contest later in the year. And I'm going to be like a judge and a coach. And we do all kinds of things. I collaborate with the teacher to come up with, you know, programs and activities that they might like to work on together with me. And they like meeting a real author who come in and they get excited. And they're just such a wonderful group, their wonderful group. The other program I'm involved in is called The Writers in the Schools Program. It's here in Baltimore, in Washington, D.C. And I'll be invited to go into or make a guest presentation at different upper middle or high schools in the area. I did one event last year in Washington, D.C. that was two high school classes that were brought together to meet with me and talk about writing and literature. They had read some of my stories and we talked about my process. So that was really interesting as well.

Betsy: [9:22] That's great. Well, let's talk a little bit about your work with Sulaf on this particular story. Now, you met her at a theater. And how did meeting her at that theater sort of helped the story and was there anything challenging about it?

Susan: [9:41] Well, we sat together for a little bit. We sat on the stage and talked and she told me a little bit about herself and told me her basic idea. And then we had a tour of the theater itself. And I've never really been backstage in a professional theater. It's a mystery. And there were so many, like dark hidden spots at the back of the theater. And I just gave her my, as I said, I gave her my cell phone camera. And I told her, just take this, take some pictures so that when we are sitting to write later, we have some visuals to look at. And we took pictures of, you know, there's like a work room where they build stage props. There's like a space with lots of tools and a big workbench. And there's lots of hidden dark spots there. We actually were looking to see if like a body could fit under there, like a person could hide...

Betsy: [10:36] Mm hmm.

Susan: [10:26] You know, under these different spots. We went into the costume room and looked around and we just really were allowed to explore very freely. And that was that was terrific. And I think it gave me a sense when I was drafting the story of the kind of inner workings of a theater and all the potential that that space has for hiding someone.

Betsy: [11:05] Mm hmm. Well, let's talk a bit about that. I mean, there is a mystery at the end of this story, but, you know, spoiler alert for those who want to know. I mean, what were you thinking about when you wrote this story? Like what? Who do you think was causing the mystery?

Susan: [11:22] Yeah. So. It's interesting, I wrote it a few times and each time. The person at the center of the mystery became less and less ominous. And more. Someone who was in need and someone who was hiding. So I imagine that this person is somebody who is seeking refuge and they decided to hide out in the theater. And they've been there for a few days, just kind of avoiding detection in different ways. And again, there are lots of places somebody could hide as we as Soloff and I found in that theater. So, yeah. And at the end, we left a pretty open where Layla decides to pursue the person who's been sabotaging and stealing things. But I imagine that as a person who is who was in need, who was there to who was there seeking some kind of safety or protection.

Betsy: [12:22] Mm hmm. Makes sense. Yeah, no, I think it's a great interpretation of it, too. Good way to go with it. And you also worked in Edgar Allan Poe. Why? Well, how did he make an appearance and. 

Susan: [12:40] Well, I live in Baltimore. 

Betsy: [12:41] Oh!

Susan: [12:41] And so this is the home of Edgar Allan Poe. I mean, our football team is named after, you know, a theme, the Ravens.

Betsy: [12:48] Right. Right. Right.

Susan: [12:49] Yeah. So it's a very Poe kind of town. And anytime I have a friend who's in town to visit, I take them to the grave site of Edgar Allan Poe. And we just opened the Edgar Allen Poe house here in Baltimore. It's on the historical... Yeah. The Literary Registry. So, yeah, this is definitely an Edgar Allan Poe city. And I work a lot of Poe into my own classroom, into my own teaching. He's just a marvelous writer. You know, he's actually the creator of the mystery story, right? He has Auguste Dupin is his famous detective.

Betsy: [13:25] That's right.

Susan: [13:25] He's like the precursor to some of from these Hercule Poirot and these other detectives like Holmes, you know, who think who solve mysteries with their minds as opposed to chasing the villain all over town.

Betsy: [13:39] The original Locked Room Mysteries

Susan: [13:39] Yeah, I've always...Yes, exactly. So I've just always been a fan, and that was my way of kind of paying tribute to Edgar Allen Poe by working him in there.

Betsy: [13:49] No, that's great. Who doesn't love Poe?

Susan: [13:53] Seriously,

Betsy: [13:57] Now, how did you become a published author? What's your origin story?

Susan: [14:03] So I was always a big reader. I grew up in a bilingual household. And so I spoke Arabic at home as well as some English, but mostly English was the language I spoke at school. And I just loved to read. I loved language because I was exposed to two different languages. I loved how sentences worked and how words flowed. I love poetry. I can't write poetry to save my life, but I love reading poetry. And I remember when I was about a third grader, fourth grader, I would write some stories. You know, they always involve the princess on a horse and she was fighting a battle or something like that. And I had a teacher who lked my stories very much, and I, like I always did well in language arts class. I just always did well in those classes without ... I enjoyed the work of those classes. Well, this teacher encouraged me. I remember to copy my stories neatly into like a notebook, you know, and put a table of contents and decorate the cover. In effect, I was making my own book. And I remember how good that felt. You know. And then later, you know, I got involved as I continued my academic studies to me, literature became something for analysis as opposed to something that I created. You know, I took literature courses. I got a master's degree in literature eventually. But in college, I also finally did take some creative writing classes. And by then, I was reading African-American writers, Latino writers, Asian-American writers. And I was understanding that you could write about your community, even if you especially if your community was marginalized in some way or wasn't represented in the canon in some way, you could still write about that community. And I used those writers as models because there weren't many Arab-American writers writing in English. So I relied on writers like Toni Morrison, Esmeralda Santiago to kind of teach me how to write about a culture that most American readers weren't familiar with. So I just kept going in that direction. 

Susan: [16:25] I started to write short stories and a college professor encouraged me to send them out for publication. And very slowly, I started. I mean, I got a lot of rejections, but I slowly began to get some acceptances. And at some point I put the stories together into a collection and sold it to a publisher. I sold it myself without an agent. I have an agent now who is marvelous. But my first book was sold without an agent because a lot of smaller publishers are very happy to read and direct manuscripts not represented by an agent. So yeah. And that's how my first book came out and I immediately started working on the next one. So I write almost every day.

Betsy: [17:17] That's great.

Susan: [17:18] It's just part of yeah, it's just part of my life. It's something I can't live without.

Betsy: [17:23] Well, that kind of leads naturally into my next question. So what are your writing habits? I mean, do you get up early? Do you write late at night? Is there something you eat while you write? Like, do you need complete silence? Do you listen to music? What do you do?

Susan: [17:38] Yeah, yeah, I love hearing about writers and their their process. I'm an early riser. I actually wake up at 4:30 in the morning. 

Betsy: [17:48] Oh, my goodness me.

Susan: [17:49] Yes, I know. People grimace when I say that.

Betsy: [17:54] Yeah. No.

Susan: [17:55] I do, because it's the only quiet portion of my day. You know, I have a full time job and I have three children. So if I wait till the evening, I'm really too tired to be creative, to do anything original. So I wake up at 4:30 and I drink a lot of coffee. I'm a big coffee drinker and I give myself about two hours. And even if the writing is not happening for me, that is still a time that I sit and I will... If the writing is not working, I'll sit and I'll read.

Betsy: [18:27] Mm hmm.

Susan: [18:27] Because for me, reading is just as important as writing. And I tell people that all the time you have ... if you want to be a writer, you also have to be a reader. And so I will often spend that time reading a book, something new that's come out of the newest novel that's on the New York Times bestseller list. You know, I try to stay on top of what's being published today.

Betsy: [18:50] Mm hmm. Oh, it's great. So that actually also leads into a good next question for kids who are listening to this. They might on occasion have their imaginations get kind of kind of stuck on them like they might might have a hard time thinking of something like, what do you do to get your imagination going up? Reading as I can is a good thing to do.

Susan: [19:13] Yes, I read through that writer's block. That's my best tip for that. Yes, I do. The other tip I have is something I learned in college from my professor, which is when you are writing, try to stop in a place where you can easily pick up the next day. You know, don't don't write yourself into a tired state, like stop writing when you're at a really interesting point. And then what will happen is the next day you're not really doing too much modeling or thinking, you know, you can just jump right into it and continue the story. You know, I listen to people who I don't really exercise that much, even though I should. I listen to people who exercise and they say that once they get started, even if they're tired, it's like energy creates more energy. So once they start exercising, then they really get into it. And writing is the same way. Once you just get started, an hour will go by and you don't even realize that time has flown by. So that that tip has helped me a lot. Just being able to jump right into the work without thinking too hard about, you know, where was I going with this? And, you know, that's a waste of time. So that's something that's really worked well for me.

Betsy: [20:30] That's great. Thank you.

Susan: [20:32] Sure.

Betsy: [20:34] And I guess my my final question for you is what are you working on now? Can you even say.

Susan: [20:41] I can, I can, I am. Well, Farah Rocks number 2 is in production now. It's called Farah Rocks Summer Break, and right now I am finishing up Farah number 3, tentatively called Farah Rocks the House. I'm putting the final touches on that one. So I'm having a lot of fun with this with this girl and her adventures.

Betsy: [21:06] That's great.

Susan: [21:08] Thank you.

Betsy: [21:08] Thank you so much. Susan Waddy Dheeraj for joining us here, for speaking with us, for doing the whole story, Seed's thing. It has been a pleasure.

Susan: [21:19] Thank you. It's been a real joy for me.


Betsy: [21:24] Well, folks that’s all for today. Subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast streaming platform so you can tune in as soon as our newest episodes drop. 

If you have a stellar story seed and wanna be on the show, email us at You can also call our hotline at (646) 389-5153 and leave a voicemail telling me all about it. 

Find us on Instagram at storyseedspod and visit our website for behind the scenes pictures, to join the Story Seeds Society, and so much more.


Betsy: [22:04] Credit to Matt Boynton and Ania (Jes-Shiek) Grzesik of Ultraviolet Audio for the sound mixing, design, and score of our bonus episode. Our theme music is composed and performed by Andrew VanWyngarden. And I am your host Betsy Bird. Story Seeds is a Literary Safari Media production.