WRITERS TELL ALL
We Got to Talk to Omar El Akkad about his origin story and becoming a writer, AMERICAN WAR, and a future fairy tale that's sure to be a best-seller!
Meredith Davidson/Matthew Turbeville: Omar, we are so excited to interview you. We loved American War and have read it multiple times. Before we dive in, will you give us some history about your life as a writer, how you came to be a writer, and what publishing your first book—the struggles, the low points, the successes—were like?
Omar El Akkad: Thank you very much for your kindness. I was born in Egypt and spent the first sixteen years of my life in the Middle East before my family migrated to Canada. Later, in my thirties, I moved to the United States when my wife found work there. As someone who can’t really point to anywhere on a map and say, definitively, “This is home,” I took refuge in fiction from a fairly young age. Before American War, I wrote three other novels in my spare time while working as a journalist. None of them were any good, and I have no intention of trying to get them published, but I think of them now as a way to build the muscles. I wasn’t going to try to publish American War, either, and for months it sat on my hard drive, until one day I had a bad experience at work. I had one of those days that I think a lot of journalists go through, where you feel like you’re not doing much more than re-writing press releases. So I decided to take a chance and send the manuscript to a literary agent I’d met in passing many years earlier. To my utter shock, she decided to take me on as a client. She sent the book to Sonny Mehta, the late President of Knopf, and a couple of months later he bought it. This is not, generally, how the process works, and in many ways I won the lottery by getting a chance to work with one of the greatest editors in publishing history on my debut novel. I’m not sure I’ll ever have an experience that overwhelmingly positive with any of the books I publish in the future. It was, much more than a function of my talent, just immense good fortune. That’s not to say the process doesn’t entail all manner of valleys, and certainly I’m one of those people who instantly forgets any compliments about their work but obsesses endlessly about every criticism – and there’s been plenty of valid criticism of American War, a novel that is not by any means apolitical. But for the most part, publishing that book was a cascade of good fortune, certainly more than I deserve.
MD/MT: What books shaped you in your formative years? What books and authors do you love most now and do any influence your writing? Are there any authors or books you’d like to see gain more recognition?
OEA: I grew up in Qatar, a country that had essentially very few bookstores or libraries at the time, and where imported books, movies and music were routinely censored. As such, I didn’t really ever get a chance to choose which authors or genres I wanted to explore – I simply read whatever I could get my hands on, whatever a friend or relative managed to smuggle into the country from an overseas trip. I remember picking up a Stephen King novel at a too-young age because I was caught by the illustration of a skull or blood or something similarly gruesome on the cover, and subsequently devouring most everything else of his I could get my hands on. I remember Little Women having an outsize impact on me, because it was the first book I read, outside of the supernatural of fantastical, that depicted a life – on both an individual and wider cultural level – so entirely different from mine, so much so that I’ve been terrified of re-reading that book ever since, in case I find out I now can’t stand it. I felt and now feel the same way about The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It was only after I moved to North America that my access to literature suddenly widened, a million doors all opening at once in the halls of my local library. Song of Solomon was a life-changing novel, as was every other Toni Morrison book I went on to read. The work of James Agee was a heavy influence, especially the reportage of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which the is the book that most impacted my thinking while I was writing American War. Agee’s only novel, A Death in the Family, which depicts the familial impact of a father’s death and which I read shortly after my own father died, is on a sentence level the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. More recently, I’ve come to greatly admire a number of writers who are my contemporaries, though I use that term only as it relates to age – they are all far more talented than I am. Garth Greenwell is the finest writer working in the English language today, I think, and his newest collection, Cleanness, contains a short story called The Little Saint which stands aside Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle in the pantheon of the best short stories I’ve ever read. There are so many writers I think deserve far more attention than they receive, including the poet Sam Roxas-Chua, who manipulates the visual dimensions of text in the most profound ways. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg writer whose work has received too little attention in this country, is a writer of fierce power and a razor-sharp sense of humor. Her last novel, This Accident of Being Lost, is a masterpiece, and her newest novel, Noopiming, due out later this year, is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There are a number of contemporary Arab writers who likewise receive almost no attention in this part of the world, but should. Basma Abdel Aziz is a tremendously insightful Egyptian writer whose book The Queue, about the bureaucratic nightmare that takes place should a state succeed in crushing a people’s revolution, should be required reading in 2020 America. Khalid Khalifa, a Syrian writer, has written beautiful, heartbreaking books about pre- and post-revolution Syrian life, most recently Death is Hard Work, and before that No Knives in the Kitchens of this City, a novel I think is a masterwork, even though I’ve yet to convince anyone I know in this country to actually read it.
MD/MT: It seems like young female protagonists bring something to speculative/apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature which adult and young male protagonists cannot. What are your feelings on this, and why did you choose a female as the primary character to live out a great part of this civil war?
OEA: My emotional education has come, almost exclusively, from the women in my life. As such, I find myself gravitating to female central characters as the emotional prism through which my stories pass, which is not to say I have any right to do this, or that I’m doing it properly, it’s simply the orientation my life has taken. In the case of American War, a book largely about radicalization, I wanted to veer away from the overwhelmingly male prisms through which such issues are discussed in the world, in part because I was more interested in the emotional component of radicalization, and also because – and I know I’m a hypocrite for saying this, given how overtly violent the novel is – I wasn’t that interested in centering the physically violent component of radicalization, which I feel is tied with a masculine flavor of toxicity. I had already been thinking about the world of American War for more than a year when Sarat Chestnut showed up in my head. But once she did, there was no doubt the book would be hers.
MD/MT: How do you manage the news of the day and does it ever affect your writing? Do you draw from the real world writing fiction? How do you retain a clear vision and purpose with your writing when we know so many writers are urged to be topical and fit into what’s popular in the fiction market? How important is it to you to be relevant—do you write for yourself, for readers, or for critics?
OEA: I steal almost everything in my fiction from the workings of the real world, in part because I spent a decade working as a journalist. That said, a novel is a slow slog through time, and it takes many years between when a book is conceived and when it reaches the world. In the case of American War, I simply got lucky – a book very much concerned with the war on terror years just happened to come out in a moment where it could be read as a prophecy of how the Trump years would end. This has been great for my book sales, but in truth I had no idea Trump would win, and the novel was completed before he even declared his candidacy. With my next novel, a book about refugees, I’m likely to experience the opposite phenomenon, given that the world will be three or four global crises removed from that moment by the time this novel shows up next year, and everything that isn’t happening right now will feel like ancient history. Regardless, though I set my books in the present or the future, I’m almost always writing about something that already happened. Relevancy is a crap shoot – even the publishing industry has no idea, most of the time, what’s going to sell. You may as well write what moves you, say the things you need to say.
MD/MT: Do you think futuristic and speculative literature like American War has a purpose in mobilizing people, and if so, how? Did you start writing this novel with the hopes of changing minds and perhaps changing parts of the world?
OEA: I always hope to change minds, and I hope the book is read as an indictment of endless war and the privilege of looking away from the suffering of others. I hope it forces readers to confront the immense violence so often carried out in their names, but from which they are lucky enough to maintain great distance. But I don’t measure the success or failure of my novel, or indeed any novel, by whether it manages to change people’s minds. Orwell’s books are no less masterpieces because nobody listened, and we still march toward the dystopian surveillance state. Morrison’s novels are no less masterpieces because America has yet to rid itself of its endemic institutional racism. Conversely, Atlas Shrugged is no less of a garbage fire because hyper-capitalism prevailed. Writers should try to change the world, but the writing is to be measured on its own merits, not the willingness of the world to listen.
MD/MT: Was there anything you read or experienced that propelled you to tell this story when you did? What was the reason for the story to be told when it was written and published? Why do you think it resonates so much with people?
OEA: The story I always go back to is a memory I have of watching an interview on one of the cable news networks, many years ago. A foreign affairs expert was being asked about Afghan villagers protesting against the US military invasion, and why it seemed these people hated America so much. The expert noted that sometimes the US special forces will raid these villages, looking for insurgents, and that during these raids they will sometimes ransack the houses or hold the women and children at gunpoint. “And you know, in Afghan culture, that sort of thing is considered very offensive,” he said. I remember thinking, name me one culture on earth that wouldn’t consider that sort of thing offensive. That’s when I first started thinking about taking the defining markers of these conflicts and recasting them in the heart of the empire, and the idea behind American War was born. In truth, when it came time to publish the book, it benefited greatly from the phenomenon of a fractured America, as seen through the prism of Trump and this ugly resurgence of overt white supremacism as a governance and election strategy. It’s certainly not a blockbuster book, but I think the folks who’ve gotten something out of it have read it a variety of ways, from a dystopian thriller to an anti-war polemic to, simply, a novel about the many meanings of survival and loss.
MD/MT: You intersperse narrative chapters in American War with fictionalized excerpts of nonfiction documents, written several years from now. While writing, did you write these and insert them chronologically, or did you compose them outside the story and place them in after the narrative was already constructed? What does your structural composition process look like?
OEA: I originally didn’t intend to put them in the novel. It was simply my way of keeping track of all the moving parts of this invented world. I spent a decade as a journalist, so I’m fairly well-versed in this kind of institutional composition – government documents, legal writing, bureaucratic double-speak. I would create these documents to keep track of key dates and events. It was only later in the process of writing American War that I realized I could insert them into the narrative and get an element of texture that I otherwise couldn’t produce. There are actually quite a few more that never made it into the book, some of them fairly convoluted, with footnotes and references and what not. During the re-writing process, I moved them around quite a bit, even though the rest of the narrative I wrote pretty well start-to-finish in the order it appears in the book.
MD/MT: This book feels wildly relevant and topical to the current moment, even more so than when it came out in 2017. How, as an author, do you prepare yourself to see your work expand beyond its original expectations? How do you witness your work extrapolate through history in real time and what does that mean for you? When writing fictionalized works and actions which changed certain aspects of the future, were you aware your novel would do the same in the real world?
OEA: I subscribe to Borges’ view that the writer’s intent is subservient to the reader’s impression. It just so happens that a book I finished in the summer of 2015, a few weeks before Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy, came out two years later in a wildly different political climate (or, at least, a political climate wherein America’s ugliest face was free to shout what in previous years it may have only whispered). And so I’ve had to deal with this overwhelming impression among my readers that I wrote an attempt at prophecy, when in fact I see American War not only as a book about this country’s future, but about someone else’s past – I don’t think of it as a novel chiefly concerned with America, so much as the consequences of what America has done to and in the world.
MD/MT: This story is set in a near-future American South. Why the American South over any other region in the United States and how does this inform your story? What drew you to writing about the South in the first place, and how much research did you have to put into writing about a future which could possibly take place?
OEA: I spent about a year researching the places in which the book is set, mostly so I had a good sense of the landscape I planned to obliterate in the novel. Hardly any of the places in which American War is set appear as they are today. I’ve superimposed massive geographical change in the form of warfare and climate change. But I wanted something of the land as it is, so I spent a lot of time in places such as southern Louisiana. I think I’m drawn to the South because it reminds me in certain ways of the part of the world where I grew up, the Middle East. There’s a kind of ingrained violence of warped remembrance, an almost optional relationship with the truth of history. All these things felt similar to me, even if the specifics are wildly different. To be perfectly honest, the last thing I was concerned with was whether any of what takes place in American War could plausibly happen in the future, at least in any literal sense. I don’t think the events of American War are how a second civil war would go down. It’s hard to even think in those terms, because every day I wake up in this country I’m faced with fresh evidence that the first civil war never ended.
MD/MT: In writing fiction that takes place in the future, what do you feel is the value of providing a recognizable setting for modern readers (perhaps an evolution of places they are currently familiar with), as opposed to a renamed or nameless land not specific to an existing or familiar place? If this was a completely different and fabricated world, do you think it would have the same impact it does today?
OEA: A lot of what I do as a writer is dislocative. Privilege is in many ways a disease of perpetual forgetting, and the central trick in a lot of my fiction is to take what the privileged class can forget without consequence and relocate to a narrative setting where the markers of place fight against that forgetting – these drones are bombing yourtown, this agent of the state is torturing yourneighbor, this injustice targets yoursociety. In that sense, if I had written the same book a hundred years ago, it would have been titled British War. What matters is not to depict some pathway to an American future, but to invert the agency of American calamity, to make the bad things that happen all the way over there happen here – and in doing so, hopefully make it a little more difficult to ignore, to forget.
MD/MT: American Warat times feels a bit like a frontier story, or perhaps the reverse of a world that evolving but in many ways shrinking and, in doing so, limiting the characters. What does frontier mean when the land has already been claimed and discarded? Can land be reclaimed, now or in the future, or even in your novel?
OEA: Certainly, in a very real sense – one our interpretation of time makes us particularly bad at grasping – land can be reclaimed. A couple hundred thousand years ago, the place we call Florida was twice as wide. All that land is underwater now, the sea reclaimed it. The very notion of a frontier is, at its core, an ordinal thing – on this side of the line is us and on the other is them and if one of us is not better than the other, why even frame the world this way? It is a matter of historical record that the United States is a country that gained its geographic expansion aided by the fruits of genocide and its economic expansion aided by the fruits of slavery. In my mind, the frontier story serves a vital purpose in offsetting the immense and terrible weight of these crimes, because it imposes on the whole undertaking a kind of temporary wildness, wherein any crime is only a momentary lapse of judgement in a state of otherwise perpetual innocence – yes, we wiped out that village and enslaved those people but it was all so chaotic in these places where our civilization and their savagery collided and once things settled down we went back to being good. It is a storytelling tool that persists to this day – almost every American book and movie about the Iraq invasion is in its own way a frontier story. Jack Nicholson’s monologue at the end of A Few Good Men is a frontier story. James Baldwin once said of difficult books: yes, it might hurt you to read it, but it hurt me more to write it. The mediocre frontier stories – which as far as my limited reading goes, I’ve found to be the majority – do the opposite. They placate a certain kind of reader, and placate the writer even more. I’m all for anything that obliterates this particular use of the form, or at the very least inverts it.
MD/MT: Have you listened to the protest album by ANOHNI, HOPELESSNESS, she depicts how these stories—war stories, youths involved in war, the lasting effect it has on the young people—all beginning with the deaths of family members, significant family members like parents or siblings. Why do you think this is so important in pushing the narrative and life of a character forward?
OEA: There’s a track on that album titled, “Why Did You Separate Me from the Earth?” which is a thing that can be said about the effect of brutality long before the brutalized are physically separated from the Earth. A lot of what we call injustice takes place along the axis of agency – the basic human need to have some say over the things we do and the things done to us. To take away someone’s agency is to create a vacuum anything may then fill – fear, anger, violence. One of the most admirable aspects of American history is the extent to which its most brutalized communities have overwhelmingly responded with calls to justice rather than violence in kind. I hope that measure of goodness, our capacity to respond from a place of love, is stronger than the forces lined against it, but I don’t know if I’d be able to maintain that emotional posture after watching my loved ones killed by a drone or a special forces sniper, my community wiped out by war or the ruin that follows war. I don’t know how others order their lives, but my personal ordering has always reacted to the lives of the people I love. I know of no other way to move a life forward, not simply when talking about the ugliest of our human faces, but all of them.
MD/MT: Can you tell us if you’re working on anything new, and if so, would you share any information on the work-in-progress? American War was and is a major success, and I know anyone reading this would love a teaser of what’s to come!
OEA: I submitted my new manuscript to my editor a few days before the country went into Coronavirus lockdown. It’s a repurposed fairy tale, very short and very much unlike American War. I have no idea if readers who liked my first novel will like it, but it’s the book I felt compelled to write in the moment I wrote it. It’s tentatively due for publication next year, but of course I have no idea what future calamities the world has in store for us between now and then.
MD/MT: Omar, thank you for allowing us to interview you. We are such big fans of your writing and we can’t wait to see what you come out with next. We’re so thankful we got to pick your brain, and feel free to leave us with any lingering questions or thoughts, comments or otherwise. Thank you so much again, and we hope everyone will go pick up a copy of American War and read it as soon as possible. The few who haven’t already, we mean.
OEA: Thank you, I really appreciate you taking the time, and the thoughtfulness of these questions.