Ex-City PSL wins prize for first novel
After growing up living around the world, Louise Soraya Black worked at several top City firms and PLC before winning a prize for her first novel, which was published in October 2010. Her book is a love story based in Tehran and she drew on her experiences of living there as well as the fact that she is half-Iranian. She is now focusing on her career as a writer and looking after her young son.
mtl: Hi Louise, given that you grew up moving from country to country, please can you tell us why you went into law in London and about your legal career?
Louise: I was born in Surrey and after a few months my mother and I joined my father who was working for Unicef in Nigeria. As a child and teenager we lived in Pakistan, England, Iran, Bangladesh and Indonesia and I attended international schools. As a result of my friends being mostly American, I was keen to go to university in the US but fell in love with Europe during my gap year in France.
I started an English degree in London as I had always loved reading, but found it very traditional. After being exposed to issues that touched on law through working for the student newspaper, I decided to switch my degree to something that I felt was more relevant and interesting. I enjoyed studying law and, like many people, felt encouraged into the City, partly because I wasn’t aware of the other options available.
I did my training contract at Slaughter and May, which is obviously a very good firm and I have some great friends from my time there. I qualified into the Financial Services department and stayed for a year before moving to Travers Smith. I enjoyed research more than transactional work and thought that the role there would be a better match for me.
Law degree, London
Training contract, Slaughter and May
Financial Services, S&M
Financial Services, Travers Smith
Financial Services service at PLC
PSL at Herbert Smith
Maternity leave from Herbert Smith
Won The Virginia Prize
Pomegranate Sky published
I enjoyed Travers Smith but even then I knew I would probably end up doing something else in the future as I am not a natural City lawyer. It was also at this point that I started to write my novel and I spent evenings, weekends and holidays writing. Realising that I needed more time to do it and more predictable hours, I left for PLC after two years.
At PLC I set up the Financial Services division and my role involved launching it. The company is a bridge between law and publishing and I enjoyed the writing, even though it was legal rather than creative. Learning to write to deadlines and having to be concise was very useful experience. After eighteen months, with an eye on both my legal and writing careers, I decided that I needed more experience on the front-line and went back to private practice, but this time as a PSL. Writing was still a passion and a hobby and I didn’t want to give up on it, but I was also mindful of my legal career.
In 2006 I started as a PSL at Herbert Smith, which is a fantastic place to work as a support lawyer. I felt part of a dynamic department and gained a lot of useful experience.
By now my novel was nearly complete and I was busy editing it down from 100,000 words to 70,000. I worked a four-day week and the firm knew that I used the remaining day to write. If my book hadn’t been published then no doubt I would still be there.
mtl: How did you get your book published and can you tell us about it?
Louise: While I was on maternity leave from Herbert Smith, I was put in touch with an agent through a literary consultant called Stephanie Hale. As well as trying publishers directly, a difficult task because the market for new authors was slow, my agent (Sonia Land) entered the book into a competition called “The Virginia Prize”, which was designed to encourage and promote unpublished female writers.
At the time I didn’t think about the possibility of my book winning the competition and several months later when it appeared on a shortlist on the publisher’s website, I was surprised and excited. In the autumn of 2009 it was announced as part of the Richmond Literary Festival that I had won. The book has now been published, six years after I started writing it and I’m busy promoting it, which is a strange feeling after wondering for so long whether anything would ever happen with it.
The book is set in Tehran and as I am half-Iranian and have lived there, I’ve drawn on my experience of life there. The main story is a love story set in 2001 about a young Iranian couple who keep their relationship secret. This is partly because they come from different backgrounds (she is from a well-connected family and is expected to marry well, whereas he is a struggling artist of fewer means) and also because dating isn’t officially allowed and people can be arrested, fined, detained and even flogged. Of course it still goes on all the time though.
Woven through the main story are other love stories told by female family members from different periods of Iranian history, so the reader sees Tehran through time. There are many descriptions of the culture, food and scenery of Iran in the book and it will make me very happy if people have a richer understanding of the country after reading it.
mtl: What are your plans for the future and do you have any advice for our readers?
Louise: At some point I would like to write another book but I have no plans as yet and knowing how I write, it will take a long time. I may also use my legal skills again at some point as I didn’t leave the law because I didn’t like it.
Being a writer is really hard work and getting published is very difficult, but don’t give up. Nowadays publishers want an agent involved from the start and it is best to use one as they have a lot of experience and can negotiate for you and guide you. Writing can be quite solitary and lonely as when you’re working you’re on your own and days can lack structure. I didn’t have any formal training in writing but I was fortunate to be introduced to a creative writing teacher who gave her feedback on my drafts.
If writing is your dream then follow it and perseverance is the key. I have always loved reading and always wanted to write since I was little. I didn’t feel that I had enough life experience to write until my mid-twenties and it took a while, but when I started I was gripped by it and compelled to write the story.
mtl: Thank you for your time Louise.
You can see a review of Louise's book in the Guardian here.
If you know any other ex-lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives then please get in touch.
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