Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Book Reviews that Sound a Deeper Note
AE Nasr: This was an issue I faced from the start, and it’s not a small issue because it’s one of the main components of any story – where is it set? I knew from the outset that I didn’t want the story to take place in a specific country. Some of the geographical and cultural elements in MIRO bear a lot of resemblance to my homeland, Lebanon, and naturally my experiences throughout several conflicts back home informed my storytelling, but it was always my intent to look at the subject of military occupation through a wider lens: the denial of the most basic of freedoms, the normalcy of daily violence and the choices we make under those circumstances. It was important to me that any reader would be able to identify with these characters. That meant eliminating any barriers to immersion, and removing identifiers that would predispose the audience to a certain opinion about the conflict based on current world events. Any reader should be able to pick up this novel and say, ‘This land could be my land. This person could be me.’
However I did go through a phase of believing that the occupied country in MIRO should have a name, even if it is a made-up name, just to strike it from the readers’ minds that they were being asked to guess the setting. They’re not. I’m not trying to sneak in any hidden messages or points of view about specific conflicts, and I don’t have any ulterior motives other than to tell a story about the everyday heroism of regular people surviving war. My made-up name for the country sounded odd in the reading, but a quick rewrite solved that problem.
AE Nasr: War and occupation have been part of my life—the background music, shall we say: at times enraging, at times terrifying, perhaps dulling my senses but never dull. But when I began writing MIRO in 2007 it was a simple writing exercise—a writer in front of a blank page on the computer screen. My father and brother had sat me down one evening and staged an intervention of sorts. I had been talking about writing a novel ever since I had learned the English language as a child (ask my boarding school dorm mates in the UK and they’ll tell you) and here I was in my 30s editing other people’s work. I hemmed and hawed. I couldn’t just sit down and start writing if I didn’t have a story to tell.
With great scepticism I booted up my computer that evening and wrote the first words that came to me. I saw five men on the run. But what were they running from? Over the next few days, that image began to grow in my mind and—much more quickly than I had imagined—I knew the story I wanted to tell. At its heart, it was a story of brotherhood—the life events that bind us, and the things we would do for each other that defy animal instinct and the laws of nature. That the story was set in an occupied land was a natural progression. As a writer, they tell you to write what you know but it’s not a necessary lesson because you do it anyway. So when I wrote about being holed up in a makeshift bomb shelter, I did it with confidence because I had been there. And when I wrote the surreal scenarios of ordinary people dealing with everyday tasks under constant threat to their lives, I just had to close my eyes and remember.
But personal experience isn’t the magic ingredient to a good story. And writing a novel is hard, or at least the first one, in my experience. It’s weeks, and months and years, of sitting in a room alone and arguing with yourself. If the world had suddenly and miraculously become a peaceful place, I may never have finished. The conflicts I was writing about continued to be a part of our reality and it definitely fed my desire to finish the story.
My father passed away before I published my novel, and I would have dedicated it to him regardless, but I remember clearly the day in 2010, when I had finished the third or fourth draft of my novel, that I read about the Tunisian street vendor who had set himself on fire and sparked a revolution. I called my brother, and we talked for hours about how closely the real world was mirroring the events in my story. I went back and added a tribute to that street vendor. I may not have set out to memorialise a specific part of history in my novel, but acts of heroism, no matter how old-fashioned a concept, will always deserve a prominent place in our literature.
AE Nasr: Miro is the innocent. No matter how cynical a person you consider yourself, or how wise, or how strong, when faced with the hard truths of war, you will ask yourself naive questions: Why do these people want to hurt us? What have we done to them? Would I kill someone, even if they were threatening my family and those I love? How can I make it end? Will vengeance make it better? Do I have to get behind a weapon to make a change?
My novel is populated with characters who have lived through military occupation for 11 years. Some hardened and jaded and ready to fight, others just trying to blend into the background and survive. Miro, the titular character, is a young man who has grown up in a prison cell with other prisoners of war, who was taken into captivity at the age of 12—before he could make up his own mind about the conflict. Despite the hardship and brutality of his captivity, he doesn’t begin to really grow up until he has escaped the cage. In a way, his cell has been his shelter. He has had his brother and cellmates protecting him. But out in the world, he discovers that the enemy can come in many guises. The enemy can be the soldier of the occupying army, the compatriot who would hand you in to save his skin, or your own demons telling you that you don’t deserve to live.
My first image of Miro was a young man collapsed in the mud on a stormy night, overwhelmed by the terrible things he’s seen, and being urged by his friends to get up and keep going. My story began with and was built on that image of surrender to the ugliness. Miro represents that innocent part of any of us that can be overwhelmed and at times wants to give in, admit to our limits and turn away. And if not for Miro’s fragility in the first act, it would be hard to comprehend the bravery of his actions, and those of his countrymen and women.
One of my favourite pieces of literature as a student was Lord Byron’s “The Prisoner of Chillon”, and only years after I had completed my initial drafts of MIRO did I realise how strong an influence Byron had been on my story. In his narrative poem, the protagonist had watched impotently as his brothers died one after the other in their prison cell, and had almost been undone by the death of the youngest, the purest of them all. It may be that the story had struck a chord with me as the protective ‘big sister’ in my family, but I’m certain that Miro strikes a chord with any reader who is aware of his or her own imperfections but would gladly stand in the path of bullets for those they love.
AE Nasr:The climactic battle scene was a work in progress over several years. In fact, in my initial outline, it was far less climactic and more reflective of a jaded child of war who saw no end in sight. But as the draft evolved, and I tied together all the loose ends of my character’s arcs, I was also learning important lessons about writing a novel-length story. You spend so much time on your story that it sometimes feels as though you need to end it already, not realising that the time you’ve spent on it is completely unrelated to the time span on the page. But that’s why the editing phase is such an essential part of writing a novel.
I’m sure I’ve read many books and watched many movies that influenced my treatment of the climax, but I like to think that my past has helped lend authenticity to the scenes. In my experience, there’s nothing quite as terrifying as the sound of a bomb exploding nearby, or the sight of the night sky turning to day from its flash, or the sound of your mother’s voice screaming to locate you as you scurry, mad with panic yet instinctually, to a place of safety, grasping at those closest to you. Also in my experience, in the worst of times, there’s nothing as uplifting as a nation standing together behind a common cause, fully aware of the lives lost every day but each ready to play their part and rally behind the good of the whole.
Also in the final battle the apparent betrayal adds a strong element of danger. When we reflect on what might have happened to remove the lookouts and give the enemy the village’s position, we have to conclude that Yosef, the leader of the resistance, understood the nature of the sacrifice needed. Was this element of your story with you from the beginning of composition, or did it evolve as your story progressed?
It was definitely there from the start, but the narrative evolved with Alex’s arc. Throughout the whole novel, the Professor has only two chapters narrated from his point of view. In the first, he’s asked to convince his cellmates to take on the gardening job, knowing full well it meant collaborating with the enemy, but accepting that choice nonetheless to help increase Miro’s chances of survival. In the second, he’s asked to convince his friends to take refuge in the mountains, though there are clues that Alex’s intimate knowledge of the cycles of history allow him to correctly predict the outcome of that move. In fact, he is the one who plants the seed in Yosef’s mind. I wanted to be as subtle as possible with these connections, hoping the reader will appreciate not being spoon-fed, but there’s a fine line between subtlety and inscrutability. I worked hard on leaving as many breadcrumbs as possible without taking away from the reader’s discovery.
AE Nasr: I have a couple of ideas vying for my attention, but I think the frontrunner is one in the area of speculative fiction that I’m really looking forward to exploring.
“The meter of life: not time as we guess, as we mostly suppose, yes time passes and it passes, untiringly, profoundly, but only because you are. The difference in you: between inhale and exhale, between heartbeat and beat, between what you drink at eight and what you expel at ten, the same moisture in and out, passing through you, its atoms unchanged but you are changed and that’s how you know time has passed. How you perceive you are alive, must be alive, must accept the rhythm’s rule.”
“… I was startled to recall how we’d all acted as if Oscar’s silence, his refusal to speak, was something provocative, bizarre. We all refuse words, all the time! We do it selectively, is all, under the pretense of being willing when need arises but that’s a lie. We keep to ourselves what we keep to ourselves without review, [and] without approval … Silence is golden or it isn’t, but it’s widespread.”
Well, I didn’t plan to settle on these unusual features. I never outline before I start a novel. What you read there on the page is what was in my head the moment I was sitting in front of the laptop typing away. I do this until I have the entire story there on the page from beginning to end. Then I draft through and I even surprise myself the way the elements started to fit together in that wild and twisty way with each drafting of the novel. As far as some of the elements you bring up: I’m from a small town and have always been drawn to the politics and dynamics of that type of living and sense of community. I know the beauty a small town possesses, but also how easily green grass turns to mud. Meaning how quick and easy it is for fear and panic to ripen in those close quarters of a small community.BP: Your narrator Fielding ends up a bitter, guilt-ridden old man, living in a ramshackle trailer in the desert. Two questions: was there ever a time when you considered this book a coming-of-age story for Fielding, with a much more limited time frame for the ending? And was a more “life-affirming” ending ever a possibility for this novel?
In my writing I do tend to write about families with difficult histories. There’s something so fascinating to me about history and how it very much comes into play in our present. I do try to find that balance of universal normalcy and connect it with less-orthodox aspects. I’ve always been drawn to the strange things that can come to define the most everyday phases of our lives. And sometimes this strangeness comes out in the characters’ names. There is so much behind a name. Elohim’s name fit him perfectly because he’s representing that side of the battle in the novel. So really I wish I could say I planned on these unusual features, but really it just comes down to opening the faucet in my mind and being ready to catch what comes out.
To answer your first question, Old Fielding did have a much smaller part in the early draft. But the more I wrote about the events, the more Old Fielding had to have a life after that summer in order to show how those very events had affected him. He needed to be seen and his life to be had past the coming of age, to the coming to mid-life, and finally coming to age. To answer your second question, I don’t think a more “life-affirming” ending was ever possible for Fielding. A happier ending would have been more fictional than the fiction it is allowed to be. This ending was Fielding’s truth.BP: The Bliss family has one quirky mom. The boys, though, including the father Autopsy, are sympathetically and very believably drawn. How did you manage that? Any brothers in your family (not that that would necessarily be a prerequisite)?
I have two older sisters, but no brothers. I’ve always wanted an older brother. I think that’s probably why Grand is the way he is to Fielding, because that’s how I would have wanted my older brother to be. Heroic and kind, intelligent and the boy everyone thought was going to keep soaring to the stars. With my characters, I very much feel like they are real people. That I’m merely the vessel through which they pass to get into this world of ours. While their beginning and end are confined to the pages of the book, I always see my characters outside of those pages. In moments that no one else will know of. Dialogue and conversation that doesn’t end when the book does. So in many ways they manage themselves.BP: Any validity to my belief that you chose 1984 as your time frame because of the period’s lack of general understanding or sympathy about AIDS?
Definite validity. When I was thinking of what time period the novel was going to take place in, I knew it would be the 1980s because (and maybe this is a stereotype) but when I think about the 80s I think of neon colors, big hair, and suntans. It’s almost like a decade long summer. I was born in 1985, so I can’t attest to whether this is true of the decade and can only go on how music and TV/movies from the time make me feel about life then. Having decided on the 1980s, I knew I had also unintentionally decided on writing about AIDS because, whether we like or not, the 1980s and AIDS are irrevocably linked. It was the moment that changed not just how we have sex, but how we understand sex, and even in some cases, fear it. This fear is essential to the novel. And the earlier you are in a new disease, the more fear there is going to be. So 1984 was early enough for the disease to still not be understood and still early enough to have that innocent 80s summer mentality.BP: You tell Summer behind a smoke screen, if you don’t mind my saying. I thought your casting of Elohim as a steeplejack was a stroke of genius. Any specific inspiration for the character?
When I was thinking about who Elohim would be, and what he would do, I immediately thought of something reaching. He’s a very short man, as you know. He seems to always be reaching in life. Reaching for relationships. Reaching for significance. Reaching for the cereal on the top shelf. I also very much saw him as a builder. The one constructing. As he comes to construct those in his group during that summer. Building his followers and their emotions up, building, building, like a steeple, until in the end, that steeple collapses. The builder buried under the very bricks he thought were so neatly, and godly, stacked. As far as inspiration goes, I always say the characters themselves inspire me. They really are their own people and these are their truths. I only hope I tell their truths as honestly as I can.BP: Old man Fielding is extremely mean to his young neighbor, in an effort to scare him off. Why? I don’t think Fielding has the energy or the inclination to actually hurt the boy. Does he just want to be left alone?
As Fielding says, he scares off the boy not really because he wants to be alone, but because he feels like he’s saving the boy. Fielding very much thinks himself to be like a poison in this boy’s life, and no matter how much Fielding wants to be friends with the boy, he can’t do that to the boy. Use him like some sort of ‘ladder out of hell’ as Fielding says, because by being that ladder, the boy has a very good chance of getting burned by the flames himself.
I’m hoping to follow The Summer that Melted Everything up with my newest novel, When Lions Stood as Men. It’s an unusual take on a Jewish brother and sister who escape Nazi Germany and survive the Holocaust. With this guilt of surviving, they cross the Atlantic and end up in my land, Ohio. While here they construct their own camp of judgment, where their freedom is punished and through that their guilt is relieved, somewhat. But soon they realize guilt isn’t the only thing they need to survive. It’s each other, and the old lions that once stood as men.