A tête-à-tête with the author of ‘Counting Down with You’ — on representation, diversity and Tangled.
I am so excited to post this interview with the lovely Tashie Bhuiyan.
Her YA debut, Counting Down with You releases in 2021, featuring a “Bangladeshi-Muslim teenager who navigates the difficulties of independence, family, and first love after being roped into a fake dating facade by a classmate”. I’m even more excited because Tashie herself is Bangladeshi, and having this representation in publishing is so, so needed.
I am eager to get my hands on Counting Down with You. Like, can it be here already, please?
Summary from Goodreads
How do you make one month last a lifetime?
Karina Ahmed has a plan. Keep her head down, get through high school without a fuss, and follow her parents’ rules-even if it means sacrificing her dreams. When her parents go abroad to Bangladesh for four weeks, Karina expects some peace and quiet. Instead, one simple lie unravels everything.
Karina is my girlfriend.
Tutoring the school’s resident bad boy was already crossing a line. Pretending to date him? Out of the question. But Ace Clyde does everything right-he brings her coffee in the mornings, impresses her friends without trying, and even promises to buy her a dozen books (a week) if she goes along with his fake-dating facade. Though Karina agrees, she can’t help but start counting down the days until her parents come back.
T-minus twenty-eight days until everything returns to normal-but what if Karina no longer wants it to? So before we get started with the interview, I just want to give a warm thank you to Tashie for being such a sweetheart when I reached out about this interview. From a fellow Bangladeshi woman, thank you for creating a space for us and writing a fierce Bangladeshi character, a story full of culture and representation.
When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
Is it boring to say there wasn’t a specific moment? When I was younger, I couldn’t speak English. For the first few years of elementary school, I was in ESL (English as a Second Language), but in second grade, my teacher introduced me to the Magic Tree House series and I never looked back.
Since then, I’ve loved reading with a passion. When I entered middle school, I tried my knack at writing and found that I enjoyed it a lot, too. Ever since seventh grade, I’ve been regularly writing thousands upon thousands of words every year.
How long does it take you to write a book? How long did it take you to write Counting Down With You?
Depends on the book! My contemporary books take less amount of time in comparison to my fantasy books. For a YA contemporary, I’d say around a month or less. For a YA fantasy, I’d say between 2–3 months. Counting Down With You was written in 30 days.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
I tend to plan my books around (Camp) NaNoWriMo, so I have the daily word count tracker which tells me to write about 1.6k words a day. I usually aim to do at least 2k a day though, just to make sure I have breathing room in case I have to miss a day. Although, honestly, it usually ends up more than 2k. This past Camp NaNo in July, I did around 5k a day. This upcoming November NaNo, I won’t be surprised if I do something similar.
What would you say is your interesting or unusual writing quirk?
Hmmm, I don’t know if I have an unusual one, but I love to send my friends snippets as I write. Bless their hearts, they always indulge me. It really gives me a confidence boost when they’re hype about my characters/scenes because it makes me hopeful that eventual readers will be too!
Where do you get your ideas for your books?
By consuming media, I think. There’s a lot of things I watch and I’m like wow, I want to write a dynamic like that, or I want to write that trope, or I want to use that plot device. The other day I heard a song by the Jonas Brothers-” Hesitate”-and the line “I thank the oceans for giving me you” inspired a whole book idea. Similarly, a different day I was watching the movie The Prestige and thought it would be so cool to write a ‘revelation plot’ which then inspired the WIP I’m writing right now.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Immersing myself in pop culture. I love music, movies, art, etc. For example, I’m currently obsessed with Corpse Husband and have watched him play Among Us for far, far too many hours. I also enjoy reading, spending time with my friends, visiting new places, learning new skills, and so on. Most of the time though, in a non-pandemic world, you can find me clowning around with my friends in a Chipotle somewhere in midtown Manhattan.
If you had the opportunity to live anywhere in the world for a year while writing a book that took place in that same setting, where would you choose? Why?
ITALY!!!!! I’d love to write a book set in Italy. In high school, I took Italian for four years. I’ve even had the pleasure of visiting Italy a few years ago with my family, and I loved everything about it. I think it would be such a fun backdrop for a YA rom-com!
So, let’s say you’ve been sitting with a blank document open for ages and you can’t conjure up even a sentence. How do you get your creativity flowing?
That is happening to me currently. Right now, my plan is to do NaNoWriMo because then I know I /have/ to hit a word count by the end of the day, so even if the words aren’t the best, they’ll still get written down. If I wanted to get my creativity flowing right in this exact moment though, I’d probably ask a friend to sprint with me, because again, it means I /have/ to write a certain amount of words. I think pressure and deadlines are really helpful for me to fight writer’s block.
When did you find out about the offer for Counting Down With You?
I was at an Italian restaurant with my friend, catching up after a while, when JL emailed me with the offer. Almost immediately afterwards, she called me, and I must have spent thirty minutes just losing my mind at the restaurant. I’m still so deeply sorry to my friend who had to watch me have that mental breakdown, hahaha. But it was really surreal and wild and not at all the type of news you expect to get in public!
What was your inspiration behind this book?
I’ve been asked this a few times, and honestly, I don’t know if there was a specific inspiration. But I did have a specific motivation-I wanted to write a book where brown girls could feel seen. When I was growing up, there were no books that captured my experience as a young Bangladeshi kid. Even now, there are so few.
So I decided I wanted to write my own, based on the life I have lived thus far, and based on the lives of the people around me. I remember one of my cousins read Counting Down With You and cried because it hit so close to home. It’s wild how we can go through life without realizing we’re never the main character, not until we finally do see ourselves on the page, and everything clicks. But yeah, that was my goal with writing this book. Also, who can resist a good fake dating plot? Certainly not me!
How did you come up with the title for it?
So the initial title for my book was Foolish Lionheart, taken directly from a line in the book. But after signing with my lovely agent JL Stermer at New Leaf Literary, I had a kind of an eye-opening moment where the right title hit me.
Throughout the book, Karina counts down the days until her parents come home from a trip abroad. She also has an internal countdown which she uses to deal with her anxiety. Since this book is a romance, I decided to combine the idea of a countdown with the romance-so Counting Down with You, as Karina counts down with Ace.
Do you plan and plot your books before writing them or make it up as you go along?
I’m a HUGE plotter. The book I’m writing right now has an outline of 8,000 words. I can’t imagine winging the whole thing. Since I’m an overwriter, I’d probably meander too much and mess up the pacing, ending up with a 200k word book or something ridiculous. So plotting is definitely for me.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Keep writing! Don’t let one book slow you down. Sometimes we have to write books to learn more about ourselves as writers and to learn the craft, so we can write the next book even better. Don’t stew too long over one idea if it isn’t panning out the way you hoped. There are more books inside you!
Who is the most supportive person in your life when it comes to your writing?
My best friends, for sure. Not one single person, but all of them collectively. They’ve all been so extremely supportive and loving and have all read my books. Most of them have been on the phone with me as I ramble about an idea in the middle of the night, trying to sort through a plot hole. I wouldn’t be here without them!
I know you’re a massive Tangled fan (so am I!!) – would you ever maybe write a Tangled-inspired book?
Funny you should ask…….. because I have! I have a WIP called Be The Light, and it’s a South Asian Rapunzel retelling. I won’t say too much, because I hope it’ll be published in the near future (I hope no one beats me to the chase!)… but the dedication for that book is: For all the brown girls locked up in their towers. It’s a villain origin story featuring enemies-to-lovers, a marriage of convenience, light/dark symbolism, and a villain love interest…
What do you think makes a good story?
Love of storytelling. I think you can tell most of the time if an author genuinely loves telling stories because it shows in their writing. It’s in the way the scenes flow, the characters interact, the tension builds, and so on.
What do you think makes a book diverse and how important is it to you?
I think a book is diverse if it features marginalized characters as the main characters-whether that’s as the protagonist, love interest, best friend, etc. They play some pivotal role in the story, and their background is never shied away from or brushed aside.
I think if someone writes stories with casts like that-in a sensitive, authentic manner, whether because they have the first-hand experience with that marginalized background, or have hired sensitivity readers-then they’re writing diverse books. It’s deeply important to me to write and read diversely, as I believe people of all backgrounds should be represented in media and see themselves on the page/screen. Having lived in New York City my whole life, it’s baffling to me when I read books with only allocishet white able-bodied characters.
Following on from the previous question, what would you say to those who argue “there’s too many POC in books now/you’re just forcing it” (because I’ve seen a lot of that floating around the internet)?
I think, bouncing off my last answer, that’s a ridiculous thing to say since some of us have lived diverse lives. Growing up, my friends have always been people of all backgrounds. My neighbours all look different from me. My classmates all look different from me. The strangers I see on the subway all look different from me. How is it forced when it’s a reality? If anything, writing books with white people as the default is what feels forced to me.
Who are your favourite authors and which books of theirs do you like the most? Why?
I’m a huge fan of Tahereh Mafi, and my favourite book by her is A Very Large Expanse of Sea. I also love RoshaniChokshi, and my favourite book by her is The Star-Touched Queen. Renee Ahdieh is another wonderful author, and my favourite book by her is The Wrath and the Dawn. Another great author is Madeline Miller, and my favourite book by her is The Song of Achilles.
Do you have a favourite time of day to write?
I’m a night owl, so I find writing in the late evening to be most satisfying.
Which of your characters is your favourite?
Noura, from Be The Light, the dark Rapunzel WIP I mentioned earlier. She is my favourite character I’ve ever written, and I wish I had a character like her when I was growing up. I think it would have made a world of difference.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working a YA fantasy inspired by Inception. It features enemies with benefits, dream magic, found family, and a heist.
What would you say is the hardest thing about writing?
For me personally, I find it really hard to get focused. My brain often jumps all over the place to a lot of different ideas, so settling into one story can often take a minute for me. Once I do find solid ground, though, I dive right in and get to work. But getting there is really hard for me.
At the moment, what are you reading?
Right now, I’m mentoring in Pitch Wars, so I’ve been reading through potential mentees’ manuscripts! But my next read is Gearbreakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta.
What books or movies can be compared to this story you created?
For Counting Down with You, I would compare it with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and the Netflix original ‘Never Have I Ever’.
Which scene or chapter is your favourite? Which one was the most difficult to write?
There’s a scene in the latter half of the book where Karina and Ace are caught in a thunderstorm on their way to Ace’s house, and it’s one of my favourites because of a dialogue exchange they have about lightning and thunder. (And because KISSING IN THE RAIN!!!!!!)
I found the scenes with Karina’s parents very difficult to write, as her relationship with them is very complicated. Those scenes hit a little close to home, so it was hard to draw on my own experiences for them, but it’s worth it if even one single brown kid feels seen because of it.
What are some must-read titles you’d recommend?
Along with the ones I mentioned above, These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, Circe by Madeline Miller, and Burn for Me by Ilona Andrews.
If you could only read three books for the rest of your life, which ones would you pick? And which ones would Karina pick?)
Omg, this is so HARD??? I’d pick The Song of Achilles, A Very Large Expanse of Sea, and one of the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan. Karina would probably pick Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, and Anne of Green Gables since she loves classics. (But she’s a huge fan of YA too!)
What would you like your readers to take away from this book?
I hope they take away hope. I hope reading Karina’s story uplifts them and reminds them to stay strong, and that things can and will get better.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Trust in yourself — you’ll end up where you need to be, and you’ll be the one to get yourself there.
Tashie Bhuiyan is a Bangladeshi American writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from St. John’s University with a bachelor’s degree in Public Relations and is an Author Mentor Match alum. Born and raised in Queens, she’s been a New Yorker her entire life and grew up in the city that never sleeps. As a writer (and avid reader), she’s used to not getting that much sleep anyway.
Since she was in sixth grade, she’s been attempting her hand at telling stories. Her first novel was an outstanding six pages. From the middle-grade summers spent in the library, where her mother used to work, to the high school years spent in the hallways of Bronx Science writing thousands and thousands of words that will thankfully never see the light of day, she’s developed an intense passion for the written word.
Nowadays, she can be found in either a bookstore or a Chipotle in midtown rambling about the ten billion book ideas in her head (or the latest meme she happened to come across on Twitter) using a significant amount of hand gestures.
Her debut YA contemporary novel Counting Down with You (Inkyard/HarperCollins) releases on May 4th, 2021. She is represented by the lovely JL Stermer at New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc.