Author Interview: Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed

Karen Lynn Williams has written several books about the difficult lives of children around the world, including Galimoto (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard), Tap-Tap (Clarion), and Circles of Hope (Eerdmans). Karen has lived in Haiti and Malawi, but now lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit Karen Lynn Williams's personal website:

Books by Karen Lynn Williams

Khadra Mohammed (not pictured) is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center and has worked with refugees in the United States and abroad for more than twenty years. Khadra lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Books By Khadra Mohammed

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Where did you get the idea for Four Feet, Two Sandals?
Khadra Mohammed: In my work with refugees, I often read stories to children since their parents are unable to read English. A young refugee girl asked me why there weren't stories about children like herself. As a Somali, I am a natural storyteller, and I would often tell my children and other children stories. I decided to look for stories about refugee children. When I was unable to discover any, I wrote the story of Lina and Feroza and Four Feet, Two Sandals. Since I'm not an author and don't know much about the publishing world, I looked into working with an author with international experience. This led me to Karen Williams and resulted in our collaboration.
Karen Lyn Williams: Once we met, Khadra and I immediately became friends. I loved her stories. Khadra made it clear that she was not a writer, but she had the stories. She is such a wonderful storyteller, and she also understands what it takes to make a good book. We found that we shared a love of children and a fascination with other cultures. Khadra's experience with refugees paired with my experience living with children in third-world countries created a great foundation for this story, Four Feet, Two Sandals.
Did you have to do any special research before you began Four Feet, Two Sandals?
Khadra Mohammed: I already had the background knowledge from my past and current work with Afghani refugees living in Pakistan and the U.S.
Karen Lyn Williams: I immediately began volunteering with the refugees in Pittsburgh and reading everything I could about refugees, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and refugee camps. I also interviewed many refugee families.
Is Four Feet, Two Sandals based on anyone you know? Are the two main characters, Lina and Feroza, based on anyone you have met?
Khadra Mohammed: All of the names in the story are names of Afghani refugees that I know. The theme is based on true stories of refugees living in refugee camps.
Karen Lyn Williams: Each character is completely fictitious. However, Khadra and I both used past experiences to enhance the storyline. When I lived in Malawi, I visited a school where it was mandatory for the children to have shoes to enter the classroom. I saw children go into the school and then pass their shoes out the window to classmates so that they could put them on and get into school. I also remember stories my grandfather told of walking to school barefoot, so he could save his shoes. He would only put them on once he arrived at school. My grandfather was an immigrant from Hungary.
Have you ever spent any time in the Middle East?
Khadra Mohammed: I am a native of Somalia, but I was raised in the Middle East. I was born in Yemen and raised in United Arab Emirates.
Karen Lyn Williams: No, I have not.
What made you decide to become an author?
Khadra Mohammed: Foremost, I am dedicated to my work with refugees; becoming an author was not a goal for me. Writing Four Feet, Two Sandals has made me realize how much the publishing world lacks stories about the plight of refugees.
Karen Lyn Williams: I have always loved books and reading and wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My parents and grandparents were creative storytellers, and my parents always read books out loud to us as a family even after my brothers and I could read to ourselves. I enjoy exploring ideas and making connections through books.
What is a typical workday like?
Khadra Mohammed: I am the executive director of the Pittsburgh Refugee Center (PRC), which is a refugee advocacy agency. We have a saying in our agency that goes, "There is never a dull moment." Whether it is helping refugees in the area with their daily needs or advocating for refugees in remote refugee camps worldwide, our work never stops.
Karen Lyn Williams: I usually try to write for at least two hours everyday. I have a laptop and a small office in my home. Sometimes I cheat by pretending that answering e-mails and doing all the busy work of being a writer is writing. When I finally get to the real writing I get so involved I forget that it is work and I wish I had started sooner and had more time to just write.
Do you have any advice for would-be authors?
Khadra Mohammed: Be true to your cause and find within yourself the drive to continue. To me, becoming an author for the sake of calling yourself an author is not as important as sharing your gift of storytelling with a wider audience.
Karen Lyn Williams: Read, read, read, and sit down and write. Write everyday. Keep a journal about your ideas and experiences. You always think you will remember, but you won't. Also, never give up.
What characteristics do writers need most?
Khadra Mohammed: The ability to be open and flexible to the constructive criticism of experts in the business who are working to improve the story.
Karen Lyn Williams: I think self-discipline and persistence are important characteristics.
Can you tell us one thing that people may not know about each of you?
Khadra Mohammed: Though I am not a refugee, I identify with their struggle to maintain their identity. I have always had identity crisis as to where I am from, because I have lived all over the world in different cultures.
Karen Lyn Williams: I am very good at procrastinating (this is not a good thing for a writer).
Do you have plans for future books that you would like to share?
Khadra Mohammed: I want to write a book dedicated to refugee girls, refugee boys, and one for my native homeland, Somalia, which has been impacted by war for decades.
Karen Lyn Williams: Khadra and I have another book about a refugee boy who comes to the United States from a refugee camp in Kenya. No one in his new home can pronounce his name, which is the most important thing that he has.