2016 Odyssey graduate Farah Naz Rishi is a Pakistani-American Muslim writer and voice actor, but in another life, she’s worked stints as a lawyer, a video game journalist, and an editorial assistant. She received her B.A. in English from Bryn Mawr College, her J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law School, and her love of weaving stories from the Odyssey Writing Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably hanging out with video game characters. You can find her at home in Philadelphia, or on Twitter at @far_ah_way.
You attended Odyssey in 2016. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
Before Odyssey, I had no writing process to speak of; I wrote sporadically, at best, writing down a few sentences and phrases that I thought were interesting and would spur a greater story. Of course, they never did; my interest quickly waned and I’d give up. I also wasn’t exactly sure how one turned a few sentences into an entire book. As a result, I kept no writing schedule at all and only wrote during lulls in law school classes.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
After graduating law school, I wanted to stay close to home because my dad was sick. I wasn’t quite mentally prepared to take the bar, but the idea of writing as an outlet seemed a really attractive one. Then, after doing some research online late one night, I found Odyssey. It sounded like such a fantastic opportunity, only, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the plunge. I knew if I did, I’d probably fall in love with writing and never practice law again. It was a big life decision to make at a time when my life already felt uncertain. Ultimately, it was my online writing friends, Marri and Kate, as well as my partner, Stephen, who convinced me that the best time to do something for myself was precisely during a time when life felt uncertain.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
Oh gosh, what didn’t change? For one thing, since I had never kept a proper writing schedule, the first thing I learned was the importance of keeping one and sticking to it. I believe it was our writer-in-residence (and class hero), Mary Robinette Kowal, who mentioned how, on days when she was especially tired or busy, she would try to force herself to write a sentence, just one sentence; even if you only wrote one sentence, at least you could say you did it. But more often than not, when you’d sit down to write that one sentence, you’d just . . . keep going. Sometimes the hardest part is just sitting down to do it.
What was also incredibly helpful for me was how Jeanne dedicated one-on-one time to each of her students to spell out exactly how and where they could improve their writing. She could somehow diagnose exactly where your story fell apart, could somehow know exactly what you might have been thinking when you wrote a specific scene, and could somehow come up with ten different examples of how exactly you could fix it. And then she’d casually offer you some chocolate while you’d sit there with your mind completely blown to bits. But it was that kind of individual attention that made me grow in ways I still haven’t pinned down.
Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?
The real Odyssey was the friends we made along the way.
I went to Odyssey thinking I would keep my head down, pick up a few neat writing tricks, and then leave. And to be fair, I did learn some neat writing tricks—and, I think, improved my non-existent writing ability by tenfold, thanks to Jeanne—but I also went home knowing I had spent those six arduous weeks with people I would now consider family. I really hadn’t expected my classmates to have become some of the closest people in my life, but the funny thing about baring your writing: it’s a bit like baring your soul. Maybe I got lucky, but everyone in my Odyssey class was an absolute treasure.
You’ve worked as a video game journalist. How has gaming influenced your prose? What do you think writers could learn from successful video games?
I think analyzing video games actually helped me understand world-building a bit better. I try to treat every character, no matter how small their role, as an NPC (non-playable character). Every NPC in a video game should have a clear purpose, not just to propel the main characters on their quest, but to better flesh out the world around them. NPCs in games offer advice and opinions, sometimes drop hints that, if missed, can really screw over the player, or at least make their quest more difficult. In that way, they can make the story interactive. NPCs basically can reward a player for exploration. If you remove them, maybe the overall story won’t be affected, per se, but it will feel less rich.
The video games I’ve loved the most not only have amazing storylines, but made me feel that I was moving through a fully realized world. For example, if I’m traveling through a particular town, I expect the characters in my party to notice and comment on certain aspects of the town: maybe a certain stall, maybe a flower that brings back a particular memory. Having different characters should trigger different conversations because those characters will notice different things. Or maybe there are Wanted posters on the wall that are clearly aimed at a certain group of people, which shows this is a world that feels this way or that way. It’s these numina, in conjunction, that make a world feel more 3D to me, and help the player—and in the case of a book, reader—understand that there are things at play beyond what we read on a page. So when I’m writing, I find that plotting a story is one thing, but imagining these seemingly unimportant little conversations and details also helps me flesh out the world and the characters in a way that never fails to delight me.
Your novel I Hope You Get This Message, about an alien entity threatening to end humanity, comes out in October 2019. Your website states that you write “hopeful stories in a not-so-hopeful world.” What do you find hopeful in stories about the end of the world? What prompted you to write I Hope You Get This Message?
To me, the most profound thing about humanity is our ability to hold on even when all hope seems lost. I think that’s why in movies and video games, whenever humans are confronted by monsters or aliens or some other species, without fail, there will always be some line about how humans are so stubborn or headstrong or idealistic, and I think generally speaking, that’s totally true. It’s probably why we’ve survived for as long as we have.
But the stories that stay with me are stories about ordinary people who, because they refused to give up in a crucial moment, managed to do extraordinary things. And most of the time, that’s done because of hope. When I started writing I Hope You Get This Message, my dad had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It really did feel like the beginning of the end of the world for me. When he passed away, and after my brother ended his own life, I needed to find a way to convince myself that no matter what happened, and had happened, things would still be okay. That I would be okay. I Hope You Get This Message was my argument. And thankfully, it’s one I can read again when I need the reminder.
What is a novel you read recently that blew you away, and what did you enjoy about it?
I just finished The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso and LOVED IT. But with magic, political intrigue, and a story centered on the friendship of two hilariously different women, what’s not to love?
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m currently writing a fantasy project steeped in South Asian history about the battle of gods and technology. I’m very, very excited for it.