15 July 2010 1 Comment

The Barbara Cartland of Cairo…Sort of: Sanna Negus’s Writing Life interview

Cairo is a place we all know to some degree, even if only the image of the pyramids and the Sphinx. A short visit there is enough to make you wonder about how much of this teeming metropolis you really don’t know. No writer gets so deep as Sanna Negus under the skin of this ancient city, which remains key to the future of the benighted Middle East. Sanna’s the Middle East correspondent for Finnish radio and television. Her new book “Hold onto Your Veil, Fatima! And Other Snapshots of Life in Contemporary Egypt” is a stunning portrayal of Egypt that’s both homage and expose. Pulitzer winner Lawrence Wright calls her “one of the most informed and well-connected reporters in the region.” She’s also one of the best writers. Here she talks about the decade she spent in Cairo (before moving to Jerusalem) and how she wrote her book.

How long did it take you to get published?

The initial Finnish version (2005) came out quite smoothly. I first got a writing grant from the biggest publishing house in Finland, WSOY, which allowed me to work on three sample chapters. Less than a year later we signed a contract. The English version took longer to publish, mainly because I got distracted by other things. One UK publishing house was at first interested, but then withdrew and I guess it depressed me and I buried the project for a while. After some friends kicked my behind and told me to get my act together, I took a look at my bookshelf’s Middle Eastern books. So I wrote to Garnet on Monday, they answered on Tuesday and on Friday I got a contract!

Would you recommend any books on writing?

This being my first book, I figured I should probably look into some writing guides. So I read a couple of books in Finnish. While these books gave a boost to my confidence, they still didn’t solve the problem of the blank page. When I was taking my first steps as a journalist (and I never studied journalism or literature), I found Jon Franklin’s Writing For Story useful. But at the end of the day, it’s better to read what other people have written in your genre.

What’s a typical writing day?

The morning starts with some form of exercise, followed by breakfast and several hours of futzing around (checking my email every five minutes, making yet another cup of coffee, doing laundry, going to a supermarket to buy a single item…) Typically I would do research or write down interviews during the day and write late into the night. My creative powers unfold after sunset.


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

It’s all you ever wanted to know about Egypt but didn’t dare to ask! Hold on to your veil, Fatima! gives the reader a comprehensive overview on Egypt, for the first time. Unlike academic presentations on Egypt, this book is written in a journalistic, at times conversational and reader-friendly way, dotted with funny anecdotes – aligned with historical data. Hold on to your veil, Fatima! presents Egypt to a Western audience by a Western woman who is familiar with the Arabic language and culture.

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?

Fatima! is a non-fictional work, but I still had to decide the style and how much I would put myself into the stories. In the end I didn’t want to be a narrator throughout, but rather present a few stories where I witnessed something or something happened to me. One review in a Finnish paper stated that in the end, the reviewer didn’t get to know the author’s persona hardly at all. That was exactly my purpose: to give the stage to the Egyptians while I’m lurking behind the curtains, whispering a few words.

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

Well I’ve always thought that people who quote literature, especially poems, only exist in movies. I really wish I could remember beautiful sentences, but only utterly trivial and meaningless stuff sticks! For this question, all I could think of was how Salman Rushdie describes the difference between a European and an American blowjob in Fury. ‘”In England,” he explained is his most straitlaced style, “the heterosexual b.j. is almost never offered or received before full, penetrative coitus has taken place, and sometimes not even then.” Otherwise, I didn’t like that book at all.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Does this mean that I should have read my classics? Since Barstow made an impression on me by being one of the creepiest places on earth, I’m going to vote for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” And so on.

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

Michael Chabon is high on the list – I very much enjoyed the Yiddish Policemen’s Union and now devouring The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Michel Houellebecq is also interesting, Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie variably. Wish I had more women on this list! Finnish author Sofi Oksanen has written a fantastic novel set in Estonia, Purge which was recently published in the States and has been translated to over 20 languages.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Stieg Larsson – although obviously he is not with us anymore. I don’t think I’ve ever obsessed about books as much as I did with this trilogy: reading until the wee hours, weird dreams, difficulty focusing on work…we’re talking major addiction. And then, that wonderful respite when you finish and you can get on with your life. Larsson is by no means the most brilliant writer and his books would have benefited from heavy editing, but he sure knows how to hook the reader.

How much research is involved in each of your books?

It is the foundation of Fatima! and probably half of the process was research, even though quite a few of the stories in the book are based on my reporting. For a good half a year I didn’t read anything but Egypt-related books and reports, same with the translation and updates.

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

I never dreamed of being a writer, although reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes. But once I allowed myself to think that I could write a book, and that I would probably enjoy the journey, it absorbed me. And to this day it has been the most rewarding project I ever undertook. And I definitely plan to write more and try different styles, even fiction.

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

Advertising it at every turn, encouraging (no, pushing) your journalist friends to review it, posting updates on Facebook…We also made a little video, http://vimeo.com/10581646, which actually got its inspiration from Matt’s very own Omar Youssef mystery promo videos. While waiting for reviews I’m working on a website. Everyone’s talking about blogging and tweeting, but I’ve always been slow adopting new technologies. Besides, how often would I possibly have something interesting to say?

What’s your experience with being translated?

Sweaty, painstaking, exhilarating, dull, boring, fascinating and nauseating – total rollercoaster. It is because I translated my own text from Finnish to English. It was mainly enjoyable, but at times I couldn’t actually understand what I had been trying to say! But still, revisiting my own text was like eating the same food for months, just adding a few different ingredients. Admittedly a generous amount of red wine was flushed down my throat during those long, lonely nights.

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

Money for non-fiction writing is peanuts. With the Finnish version I just barely broke even.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I wrote an article for an academic book on the Middle East in Finnish, about the Muslim Brotherhood. This most probably helped me getting published on my own.

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

I’m toying with fiction now and would like to think that none of my ideas are impossible to realize. But no one should ever find my comic strip style, Barbara Cartland influenced romantic stories I used to pen as a pre-teenager.

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