28 July 2009 0 Comments

The ex-husband’s trenchcoat and Zoe Ferraris’s Writing Life

Fiction—and lately in particular crime fiction—can take us deep into alien cultures, through the emotions of the characters who act as our guides, translators and social commentators. The more alien the culture, the bigger the challenge to a Western author. Zoe Ferraris took on Saudi Arabia, one of the most closed cultures in the world, and succeeded. Her first novel “Finding Nouf” gave readers the excitement of discovery and the fascination of educating ourselves about a place we know so little—despite its importance to our own lives. Ferraris lifted the veil on this repressed yet fascinating culture, through a mystery based around the disappearance of a young girl. Her detective, Nayir Sharqi, is a desert guide from Jeddah but, true to contemporary Arabia, almost none of the action goes on in the desert. Instead, he spends his time as a nervous interloper in the compounds of the rich and in restaurants where men and women are allowed the forbidden frisson of actually dining together. It’s great to know Zoe’ll be continuing her series, because one of the things I took from “Finding Nouf” was a sense of the hidden depths of Saudi culture and family life, and a desire to know more. How did Ferraris do it? Here’s her explanation:

How long did it take you to get published?

Roughly ten years. It took a year to write the novel, then I spent years revising it while working on other projects and looking for an agent. Once a publisher bought the novel, it took two years for the book to hit the shelves. People tell me this is normal, but I never used to believe it. As far as I was concerned, I was waging a war against the demonic forces of evil to fulfill my destiny.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

I say pick up anything that inspires the hell out of you and makes you wish you’d written it. Find that thing no matter what it is: TV, radio, and your neighbor’s chit-chat. You’ll learn everything you need to know from paying attention to what you love.

What’s a typical writing day?

Wake up, go to the computer and write. It doesn’t matter what it is – new writing, editing, compiling ideas, as long as I do a little writing first thing in the morning, it’s like some kind of hoodoo-voodoo that seals my fate for the rest of the day. Then I go swimming, walk the dog, eat lunch…and am drawn back to my computer like Li Grand Zombie.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

My latest book, CITY OF VEILS, is coming out next spring. It’s a sequel to FINDING NOUF, which is a mystery set in Saudi Arabia. My protagonists return – Nayir, a devout Muslim who is looking for love in a country that makes it difficult for him to interact with women, and Katya, a female forensic scientist who struggles to solve crimes in a male-dominated profession. I’ve also introduced two new characters – a Saudi homicide investigator and an American woman whose husband disappears, leaving her stranded in Jeddah. This novel is faster-paced than the first one, and I got to write about things that fascinate me: the lingerie industry, men with multiple wives, and the largest sand desert in the world.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

I guess it’s formula from the mystery genre. That’s the straight answer. Most things occur outside of the formula vs. originality question. Sitting down at the computer is about hounding out those things that really excite me, and facing up to my inconsistencies, and trying to figure out what my protagonist would really do if he was thrown into a sandstorm.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

Am I allowed more than one? Say, about twenty?

The first one that comes to mind, the one that always makes me choke up is the final sentence of Italo Calvino’s short story All At One Point. The story is about life at the beginning of the universe, when everything existed all at one point, and how cramped and frustrated we all were sharing an infinitesimally small point with the entire universe. But this wonderful woman, Mrs. Ph(i)Nk0, decides to make pasta for everyone – “she who in the midst of our closed petty world had been capable of a generous impulse, ‘Boys! The noodles I would make for you!’ a true outburst of general love, initiating at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation…making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets and fields of wheat…” Can you tell I’m Italian?

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

I am scanning the bookshelf and discovering that all of my favorite stylists are now dead.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Robert Ludlum…is still alive, yes? And I know George R.R. Martin isn’t dead yet. He’d better not be, he’s got another three books to write, and I’m still WAITING.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

Ten times as much as I ever need. I spend half my time researching. In fact, it takes a firm act of will to stop researching and get down to the business of telling a story.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

From my ex-husband, who took me to a jacket souq in Jeddah and insisted on buying a trench coat because he loved Columbo and wanted to be like Peter Falk and go out and solve mysteries. Later, my character developed from all the men I knew in Saudi who were looking for wives but couldn’t find them because they had such a hard time meeting women in a gender-segregated society.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

Yes. It’s nothing graphic, but my parents owned a cabin in the Rocky Mountains and every weekend of my childhood we would leave the comforts of civilization for this utterly isolated grotesquerie of a house. Pretending that electricity, telephones and grocery stores were inessential, everyone threw themselves into it but me. I didn’t like sharing space with bears and cougars, knowing that the closest doctor was about a twenty mile walk through the woods. My defining moment was, at seven years old, seeing the stars in a clear mountain sky and learning that each of those pinpoints of light was actually a distant sun, with possible planets around it, and that in that whole wide universe we knew of no other life. Billions of suns, and….it’s just us? I was horrified.

That same year, Star Wars came out, offering (to my child’s mind at least) the possibility that we weren’t alone, that in fact the universe was full of Wookies and droids. A few years ago I realized that my worst fears revolve around isolation, and that in all of the novels I’ve written, my protagonists face it down one way or another.

Of course, why I chose to become a writer when isolation bothers me so much is still a puzzle.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

After getting published, it turns out you’ll have two jobs: continuing to write, and marketing your book. Arrange your own book tour locally – at bookstores, libraries, community gatherings. Even doing something once a month can be a help.

What’s your experience with being translated?

It goes like this: foreign publisher buys the book, translates it, sends you a copy. You open the book, scratch your head, close it, appreciate the cover art, then put it on the shelf. Sometimes you pass the shelf and wonder if they changed whole swathes of text, and if you’ll ever find out.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?

I make a living at it now. I was lucky that my first novel sold in a number of countries, and all the advances added up to a living wage.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I wrote two, plus a number of unfinished projects that just ground to a halt. However, the two I did finish both went through so many overhauls that it was almost as if I’d written ten novels.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I’m not sure I have anything that qualifies as officially weird, but the furthest back of the back-burner projects is a non-fiction book about the way soldiers talk. I have a whole stack of anecdotes, collected over the years, involving how creative and shocking and wonderful their use of English can be.

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