Anat Deracine has always been a writer. When she was 12, a London press released a book of her poems, and as an adult, she published short fiction and essays in literary journals under her own name. When she realized she wanted to write novels, however, she chose a pen name, which she says felt freeing to her.
Deracine grew up in Saudi Arabia and notes that unlike medicine and law, fiction writing is considered a hobby, not a profession, there—although she adds that her family and friends have supported her literary efforts. She says she chose the pseudonym Deracine because it’s the root of the word deracinate, which means “to uproot from one’s native land” and which reflects her experience of being an immigrant most places she has lived.
During her childhood, Deracine wore a burka and lived with the restrictions her female characters face in Driving by Starlight (Holt). Until the age of 12, she—like her narrator, Leena—practiced “boyat,” dressing in male clothing so she could pass as a boy and thus go to the grocery store unaccompanied. Other scenes in the book—particularly the school scenes, with their focus on the girls’ interpersonal dynamics, their naïveté, and their sense of sisterhood—mirror her personal experiences. The book’s central theme is “friendships can destroy or be what saves you,” she says. Another key theme is courage, which many female characters display in different ways, such as sacrificing their dreams to give others freedom, keeping their heads down to protect their loved ones, or fleeing to a new country they know little about.
Deracine says that as a child she read Nancy Drew and books by Enid Blyton and found she identified most with male protagonists, such as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Eventually, she notes, she realized, “I wanted to write for the younger me. My hope is that young girls will be able to identify with someone like Leena.”
Reading To Kill a Mockingbird was a turning point, according to Deracine. The book strongly influenced her own novel, particularly the relationship between Scout and her father, Atticus Finch, and the theme of how Atticus’s political actions affect Scout’s life.
Deracine moved from Saudi Arabia to Canada to the U.S., where, after studying engineering and philosophy at Cornell and political science during a year abroad at Oxford, a tech company recruited her to California. She says that because “the book was in my head and wouldn’t let go,” she took time off from work and wrote the first draft in a month, initially writing in third person because she found writing in first person a stretch.
Deracine attended a Writer’s Digest conference and pitched the story to Kate McKean of Morhaim Literary Agency after hearing her deliver a funny lecture on how not to query an agent. She signed with McKean, who suggested extensive revisions. McKean then sent the revised manuscript to 10 publishers, who all rejected it.
Based on constructive feedback in her rejection letters, Deracine says she realized that the whole point of the book was that women’s voices were being silenced, and, for that reason, Leena needed to tell her story in her own voice. She rewrote the manuscript in first person, McKean sent it out again, and soon after, Deracine signed with Julia Sooy at Henry Holt.
Coming from the fast-moving tech industry, Deracine says she was surprised by how long the publishing process takes, adding that she appreciated how her publisher kept her in the loop throughout. For example, finding her original title, Hijra (which translates literally to “an escape from persecution,” signifying the year Mohammad escaped from Mecca to Medina), too obscure, Holt engaged Deracine in a brainstorming process, with satisfying results.
Deracine continues to work full-time in the tech industry, which, she says, enforces discipline, given her limited writing time. Currently at work on two other novels, she notes that she tends to write the story first and figure out the genre later. One novel, a possible YA thriller, is set in California and is western in theme. The other takes place in different parts of South Asia and incorporates the mythology and politics of those places.
Deracine says she has not received much attention for Driving by Starlight, which she attributes to the fact that she’s introverted, bad at publicity, and writes under a pen name. As far as she knows, girls in Saudi Arabia don’t know her book exists. But she hopes that, someday, they will discover it.