Malu Halasa is on new ground.
A journalist and author of numerous non-fiction books on the Middle East, Malu Halasa has just published her first novel, Mother of All Pigs. Born in Oklahoma, her Jordanian Filipina heritage gave her a unique perspective from the beginning. After growing up in Ohio, she attended Barnard College in New York and now lives in London. From this vantage point, she’s taken on the fascinating world of the Middle East and has worked hard to expand the number of voices heard from that area.
Throughout the conversation we explore the tricky thing that is “American Literature.” When she first began working on this novel in the 90s, Malu didn’t expect to publish it because there didn’t appear to be a market in the states for Middle Eastern narrative. People were willing to read non-fiction, but not a novel. As she looked on bookshelves she wondered “where is my family story?” Luckily for us, she wrote it herself.
It is my hope that more people do the same. If a story is missing from the shelves, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be included. We need to challenge the publishing status quo by supporting fiction that expands our boundaries and helps us learn. I hope you are inspired by listening to this episode to think about what story you have to tell that isn’t currently getting heard. I can’t imagine how many stories we aren’t reading that need to be read. If you have a story like this, listen to this episode and then write your story. We want to hear your story, too.
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Mother of All Pigs | Malu’s other books | Facebook
Discussed in Episode 81 with Malu Halasa
- Grew up in Ohio, worked at Rolling Stone magazine, went to London to write about music and then culture.
- Became editor of Prince Claus Fund Library.
- Wrote non-fiction on the Middle East before turning to her novel.
- As an editor of Middle Eastern writers, she wanted to create a platform that felt contemporary and not rooted in older, stereotypes of oriental rugs and such.
- She wanted to write a family story to see how readers would react to the Middle East if their entrance was fiction.
- “In the west, people are used to looking at the region through politics.” On writing a family story set in the Middle East.
- Readers, in general, don’t expect modern, contemporary voices to come from the Middle East.
- Her non-fiction books have reached important and influential readers but not through a story.
- “I wanted to go beyond those reductive images.” On writing about contemporary women in the Middle East.
- “Being there on the ground, peoples’ lives really opened up to me.” On reporting her non-fiction work in Syria.
- The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie
- “I think that all families keep secrets.” On the universality of family stories.
- “Or even the pig.” On the capacity of all characters to keep secrets.
- “The pig is also a chaotic stranger.” On the influence of outsiders on family stories.
- “I don’t go to my relatives’ house and start talking about sex.” On how much of herself is in her characters.
- Started working on her novel in the 90s. But there was no real market in the States for Arabic fiction.
- “Why was I working on something I didn’t even know would get published?” On writing her novel in-between non-fiction books.
- She is of the generation that thinks of novel writing as a higher artistic achievement than non-fiction writing. She doesn’t agree with this, but is aware of it.
- Novel is more dense because it was written over a longer period of time. Every time she went back to it, she was able to see it with fresh eyes.
- “Where is my family?” On looking for representations of herself in fiction.
- “Stories belong to all of us.” On the variety of stories that are starting to be told.
- “I am on totally new ground.” On turning her novel over to an editor and publisher.
- She is not planning on going back to non-fiction, even though there is demand for more of her work. When she started doing that work, she was one of a very few women looking at Middle Eastern art and culture. Now there are many. Her voice isn’t as needed.
For close to two years, I’ve been interviewing authors every week for the Secret Library Podcast about the process of writing and publishing books. As we approach episode 100, I’ve been reflecting on the immense volume of advice and input that has come through the show. Themes have emerged and, when it comes down to it, many authors have similar things to say about what it takes to finish a book.
It is my greatest hope that this show inspires people to write. Whenever I get a response to the newsletter that says someone kept writing because of something they heard on the show, it makes me whole day- maybe even my whole month. Take these notes about writing to heart. It is possible for you to finish your book. Please keep going, with the following in mind:
1. Every book is different. Even if you’ve written many books, each one poses its own challenges. Don’t get stuck trying to find “one method that rules them all” that will work with every book you ever write from now on. And even if you do find that method, you’ll still get stuck. (V.E. Schwab was particularly eloquent on this last point.) As reassuring as hearing about other people’s routines is, the only one that matters is the one that works for you.
2. Finishing a book is doable, and happens all the time. One of my favorite comments from the show came from Scott Carney, who said “If you’re intimidated by writing a book, you’re probably looking at writing a book wrong.” He breaks his writing down into 500 words a day, no more and no less, and continues until he has a first draft. This may seem to contradict #1, but the benefit I have felt from talking to this many published authors is having it beaten into me that people finish books every day. If you keep writing, it will happen. Giving up is the only thing that will stop you from ending up with a finished manuscript.
3. Don’t force the process. This is particularly important with Fiction, but can come up with other forms of writing as well. If you feel like you’re having to squeeze it out of your brain, it’s not going to be fun to write or for anyone to read. I go back to an early episode with Sarah Selecky all the time, who talked about writing as a kind of magical transcription. If you sit in a place of curiosity and take notes from that place, the story will come. Keep showing up on your schedule, and be open to magic. This episode will change the way you think about writing fiction, and is such a relief. If you feel like you have to white knuckle your story onto the page, this conversation will set you free.
4. You’re in charge. So many people feel scared of the responsibility of writing a book, but a flip that many authors have reminded us of is this: where else do you get to be completely in charge of everything that happens in the whole world? Perhaps the tyranny of choice is a bit scary, but an alternative is to enjoy this experience. Frustrated at your job? Wish you had more say in some aspects of your life? Relish the fact that every single thing that happens in your book is up to you. Fall in love with the world you are writing about and immerse yourself. (J. Ryan Stradaal will share how smitten you can become with your world and how to keep going when research is too enticing)
5. Above all, know why you want to write THIS book. So many of us dream of writing books. I have since I was little. And each book that sits on a shelf somewhere started out as a “what if…?” for its author. To take it all the way to the final moment, the reason you’re writing it has to feel important to you. It doesn’t matter how much this book would mean to anyone else when you’re writing it. You will spend more time with this book than anyone else will, even if they read it numerous times. Find out why you HAVE to write this down and it will get done. Look to Natashia Deón’s drive to write while waiting at court for her job as inspiration, and Lisa Cron’s exploration of finding your why for support.)
Remember that you can do this, and that your writing matters. Speaking to writer after writer, each one tells me they get scared or blocked or worried that their book is total crap, but then they keep going and finish it anyway. And I am inspired by each one of them who keeps sitting down and doing the work. It’s hard to talk yourself into writing sometimes, but please remember that the end result is worth it. Your story is worth it.
Thank you for being brave and for continuing. More stories told makes a better world for all of us.
Sandra Scofield is like a warm hug from writing itself.
For ages, I’ve loved Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book with its reassuring composition notebook cover and its practical advice about writing great scenes. Scenes, after all, are the building blocks of a good story and as a long-time writing instructor and fiction writer herself, Sandra knows how to put a scene together properly.
So when I learned that Sandra had a new book about writing coming on, I knew I had to have her on the show. Her latest, The Last Draft, tackles that tricky topic of revision and polishing your work until its ready to be read by others.
I adored talking with Sandra because her approach is so generous and comforting to the writer. She grants permission to explore the world you want to build in your story fully and gently guides us through the process of working through your draft. Those who love analog and stepping away from the computer at points to reflect will feel at home with Sandra.
Above all, please let this be a conversation that inspires you to keep going with your story. Many people fear revision and I hope this will assuage that concern. Sandra is a kind yet effective guide. We are in good hands, so do enjoy this episode, even if revision isn’t in your immediate future. Knowing there is a way through helped keep me on track, and I hope it does for you as well.
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Sandra’s Site | Sandra’s Books | The Last Draft | Swim: Songs of the Sixties
Discussed in Episode 80 with Sandra Scofield
- Sandra wrote both of her books for people who aren’t in MFA programs and maybe don’t have access to a lot of writing information.
- She didn’t go through an MFA herself either.
- “Whatever I know about writing I’ve learned by studying books.” On how she learned to to write.
- Intentionally writes in a conversational, reassuring style. Not straight and prescriptive.
- “I had to figure those things out, and so I thought, I bet people out there are having to figure them out too.”
- “Everybody starts out as an apprentice.” On being a young writer.
- For example, Willa Cather didn’t start out as Willa Cather. She started out as someone wanting to write.
- As a writer you have to have a certain amount of confidence, but also you have to be humble. There is so much to learn.
- “The only way to learn it is to read and write.”
- “You read and you read as a writer.” On using novels as textbooks.
- “Once a reader starts reading a book, she just wants an experience.” On what readers want from stories.
- “I used my books.”
- Would read with a marker, noting scenes, how it would begin and end, the construction of the book.
- Or use a marker to denote action, to see how propulsive, or not, your plot is. Or do it on a favorite book to see how that author does it.
- A good place to start is with a really good YA novel, like Island of the Blue Dolphins.
- “At least once a year I go back and read something from my childhood.” On re-engaging with stories.
- “Summary is efficient.”
- Summary vs scene, maybe summary isn’t as bad as it’s portrayed.
- “You can’t put everything you know about a character into scenes.” On the usefulness of summary.
- The summary gives the reader a different way to breathe in the book. Different form and different pacing.
- You see the summary a lot more in European and English novels than in American novels.
- We’re at a point where the whole concept of a novel and a story is exploding.
- Immigrants, refugees, different voices, classes, education levels, etc. The range of voice is fabulous.
- The expectation of what “literary fiction” is is changing.
- “If the story bugs me for a year or two then I’ve got to write it down.” On writing for oneself.
- Different vibes at different writers workshops where she’s taught.
- Desire to share at Iowa vs ambition to publish at Squaw Valley.
- Genesis of the Scenes book was during a period of sickness. She was going through all of her possessions with the morbid thought of getting rid of them before she dies so someone else wouldn’t have to, then found all of her old writers workshop notebooks and realized they constituted a curriculum.
- “It’s good for the culture…for people to be immersed in story.” On writing ones own story.
- Writing a story you want to tell is your chance to build a world that has the values important to you. World building – not constrained to speculative fiction – is your opportunity to decide what a world looks like, for good & for bad.
- “The things that you care about will just bubble up.” On how you build your own world in fiction.
- “The stories you have to tell, if you don’t tell them, they don’t get told.” On the importance of writing your own stories.
- “I am not pushing a definition of the novel.” On teaching writing.
- “You have to have a kind of arrow that shoots through your story.” On the bones of your novel.
David Rocklin Found a Novel in a Photograph.
While researching his first novel about the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, David Rocklin was struck by an image she had taken of the Prince of Abyssinia. The image wouldn’t let him go and despite his hesitation and fear in taking on such an enormous topic, he wrote his second novel, The Night Language, anyway.
Based on a real person who lived in the time of Queen Victoria, Rocklin’s novel sprung from a desire to give Alamayou, the prince in the photograph, a happier ending than he received in real life. We discuss David’s concerns about writing the book in the first place, how he researched the book, and when the story began to take on a life of its own.
I am loving discussing how people incorporate history into writing and the ways that novels force us to look at stories different than our own and to do them justice. In addition, fans of Julia Callahan’s episode on small press publishing will be amused to hear David’s impression of Julia and to hear about working with a small press from a writer’s perspective.
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | The Night Language | The Luminist | Roar Shack | David’s Facebook | David’s Twitter
Discussed in Episode 79 with David Rocklin
- “I’ve got tea and crumpets, motherfuckers.”
- Fictionalized account of Julia Margaret Cameron. Interested in her life because she was so transgressive for her time and her photographs were so arresting.
- “I long to arrest all beauty that came before me.” (Cameron quote that is tattooed on his arm.)
- David goes deep into research on this book and finds a photograph of hers of a young African boy. Puts it aside and continues The Luminist.
- After that’s published he returns to the photograph and starts researching.
- A photograph taken roughly in the 1850’s turns out to be the inspiration for a novel written in 2015. Something an artist did ends up resonating in someone else’s life and creativity.
- “I’m about to cross so many boundary lines.” On writing characters unlike oneself.
- “Do I have the right to do this?” On the responsibilities of writing other cultures.
- “I have no right to do this. What I do have is empathy, curiosity, and a desire to do this in an honorable, respectful, non-cliche way.”
- Went deep into research to try and learn as much about the real person as possible.
- Came away with the desire to write for this person a life that they didn’t have the chance to live.
- He researched what was true and then made notes about what he’d like to change.
- Through two and three drafts, a minor character steps forward & becomes central to the story.
- “Whenever you’re depicting a character in a scene, you have to know what’s happening behind the character.” Literally, in terms of staging, and more deeply.
- What is a character’s relationship to their world? How two characters experience the exact same physical situation will be very different based on their experiences. As a writer he wants to be sure that his descriptions of the world are in sync with how his characters inhabit it. So he needs to do research on social, political, geographical, etc. issues.
- “I could pick up The Night Language right now and red pen it to death.”
- “In some ways you’re never done.”
- When the story stops feeling like something he’s researching and starts to feel like a memory, then he’s ready to go. The writing part of the writing starts.
- When he’s fives senses into a scene, it’s ready to be written.
- But this could be scene-by-scene. Research and writing were taking place together.
- David loves the research and geeks out about it. Finds the idea of writing meaning into contemporary culture daunting.
- “There’s something poignant in the idea of something that is no longer here. Being able to reach back, hold it still and shine a light on it and say “this should not be forgotten.”
- “This should not be forgotten.”
- “Every single thing that has gone before us there was a story.”
- His next novel is “the same damn thing.”
- “I’m a complete Luddite on the first draft.” On starting out with a stack of legal pads.
- The outline is a lot of ‘what if’ questions. And a lot of meanderings. It’s almost like a first draft.
- “If I get to the end of the draft & I’ve adhered to the outline, I’m screwed.” On letting the story go where it wants to.
- When a character steps up and says ‘actually we’re going over here,’ that’s when David knows the book is going somewhere. Then he just writes. No more planning. He just needs to see where it’s going.
- “I did not anticipate that this was a love story.”
- The best, most rewarding stories are those when after he’s done with the book he still wonders how the characters are and what they’re doing.
- Initial research for the book was around a year.
- He had to define, as much as he could, the boundaries of his research.
- Two drafts took another year-ish. Total project around three years.
- “Maybe the time to hang it up in a permanent way is when you’re dead.”
- Until then, don’t give up on the story.
- “You’re never done with anything you write.”
- “There’s no such thing as writing that doesn’t matter.”
- “Writing always transports you somewhere.”
- “Nobody can write the story that you’re working on right now except you.”
- “None of us see things the same way.”
- You need to know, even if you don’t write it, what happened to your character before the book or scene starts.
- You chose to begin your story at one point. Why that point and not any other? Why not five minutes earlier or later?
- You have to know your characters.
- The Yellow Light Test, a writing game. Your character is in the car heading towards an intersection. The light turns yellow. What do they do? Then, crucially, why did they do what they did? What if they did it because of X? What if they did it because of Y? What if? What if?
- “That ‘What If’ is where the story lives.” On the imaginative power of story.
Lisa Cron believes all writing is being taught wrong.
Lisa Cron is a woman on a mission: she wants to help you write your story so that your reader is glued to the page from the moment they pick up the book. She’s going beyond plotting versus pantsing to a new level of story analysis.
We dive into the WHY of your story, and what you hope to achieve by telling it. Lisa talks a mile a minute and has so much to say in this episode- you may want to listen to this one more than once to get it all into your brain. We explore the depth of story and what makes a story meaningful and how to write the part of your story that matters from the beginning.
Lisa is not about the slow exploration and wandering through story options; she wants you to get to the meat right away. If you’ve felt frustrated and unsure of what the point is of the book you’re writing, Lisa will help you plow forward. I can’t wait to see what the fire she lights in this episode does for all you writers listening. Get ready for some jet fuel in this one!
Listen Up on iTunes or Stitcher | Lisa’s Site | Lisa’s Books | Lisa’s Twitter | Lisa’s Facebook
Discussed in Episode 78 with Lisa Cron
- Why is is hard to make bad things happen to your characters
- “There’s so much you have to create before you get to page one.”
- “Writing is taught wrong everywhere.”
- Two schools of thought, Pantsing and Plotting. Pantsing the the worst way of writing ever. Plotting is just as bad.
- All the Hero’s Journey books focus not the external plot and the story’s not about the plot.
- The story is about how the plot affects the protagonist.
- “Writers are, in fact, the most powerful people on the planet.”
- Because you read a book starting at page one, it’s easy to assume that’s how you also write a book.
- “The only way we ever change is when we’re forced to.”Stories are about the internal change in response to external events. Those events are often painful. Otherwise they’d not affect meaningful change.
- “By the time you get to page one you really love them.”
- Writers will pull punches because they love their characters.
- “Good change is as hard as bad change.”
- It’s as hard to leave home to get married as it is to leave home to get divorced.
- Stories are about change so your protagonist has to be constantly confronting obstacles.
- The pants-ing, rompy shitty first draft is actually a problem. Even though you know there’s a re-write coming, you have a tacit allegiance to what’s already written – as opposed to the story you’re trying to tell.
- You try to keep as much as you can – injecting story logic from the outside in. That just doesn’t work.
- “The world has way too many interpretive dancers already.”
- If you’ve started and find yourself stuck, take what you’ve got and put it in a drawer. Don’t try to reverse-engineer it.
- “All stories begin in medias res.”
- “A story is about how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal and how that person changes internally as a result.”
- “The story is not about the plot.”
- Your protagonist is the readers’ avatar in the story. Brain science backs this up.
- Protagonists walk into a story with two things already fully formed
- something that they want, and have wanted.
- a misbelief about human nature that has kept them from getting what they’ve wanted.
- It’s this misbelief that needs to be overcome.
- These two things, long-standing desire & long-standing misbelief, are your story’s third rail.
- Forget the term “fatal flaw.”
- Meaning comes from what our past experience tells us. And when we’re little, everything tells us something.
- Most people are writing about the cost of human connection. What does it cost us to connect with another person?
- On Being Wrong
- Story vs plot is the difference between what we’re thinking and what we’re saying out loud. And which of those two is more interesting? Juicier?
- “Stories are about the buckets we’re sweating.”
- Questions to ask yourself as a writer:
- What point is your story trying to make, what are you trying to say about human nature?
- Why is making this point important to you?
- Who is your protagonist before your story starts?
- What will getting their goal mean to your protagonist?
- You can’t write forward, pants it, to find out what achieving the goal will mean to the protagonist.
- All the pre-writing isn’t what you do before you get to the ‘real thing.’ This is the real thing.
- ‘Back story’ is your story.
- On finding the ‘point’ of the story, in the beginning it can often sound simple and/or trite. “It’s better to have loved & lost than to never have loved at all.” It’s a bumper sticker. It deepens as you go forward.
- What is it about this story that makes you want to write it?
- If honing in the ‘point’ is difficult, you can back it out to the protagonist’s misbelief and try to reverse engineer it.
- “We come to story not for the ‘what’. We come for the ‘why.'”
- The why is not a generic thing. It’s very specific to your character.
- This isn’t stuff you can do in a day. Do the backstory work.
- Never write forward until you know the ‘whys’.
- The only thing we can never leave home without is our past. It is how we make sense of everything.
- Don’t do a generic birth-to-death bio. You can find them online. They’re generic and shallow.