Karim Alrawi has written stage plays, radio plays, children’s books and most recently a novel. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt and writes in both Arabic and English.
He earned an MFA in creative writing at UBC and was an International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa. His plays have been produced internationally. His work in stage has won the John Whiting Award (UK), the Samuel Beckett Award (UK), and the Jessie Richardson Award (Canada) among others.
His debut novel Book of Sands received the inaugural HaperCollins Publishers/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction Award. The novel is set during the Arab Spring and follows the lives of a small family as they struggle against an oppressive political system. Tarek, a father and husband, has to flee with his young daughter to avoid unjust persecution and leaves his pregnant wife behind. As the novel progresses it explores tradition, religion, love and freedom.
What initially drew you to writing?
I was working for an engineering company in London (England) and was writing up my thesis for a third degree. One morning as I was having breakfast at a small cafe waiting for the office to open, I realized that this was going to be a typical day of the rest of my life and couldn’t bear the thought. So I quit. I started writing a stage play. I supported myself by working as a barman in a Soho bar, as well as doing various other jobs. But then paused to write a radio play for a BBC competition. The play won and was produced. I then returned to writing my stage play and eventually got it produced. It won an award and I was offered a job at a theatre company as literary manager. And life rolled on from there.
I’ve heard some writers say they don’t read when they are writing because it influences their work too much. Were you reading while writing Book of Sands?
I found writing the novel very difficult. It was as far from writing stage plays as I could imagine. Generally, I don’t find writing easy. When it clicks it is pleasurable and when it doesn’t it is depressing. Therefore I feel I need all the help I can get. I read while I write and try to read what I think will help me learn what I need to know at any particular stage of my writing. That includes novels, short stories as well as more analytical works. I am not worried about being influenced because, frankly, I would love to be influenced by good work and by good writers. I can only think that would make me a better writer. We all write from with some tradition of creative expression. The idea that anybody can write without being indebted to other writers is a fallacy. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge it and be grateful for it.
Can you describe your process?
It seems to me, in extreme, there are basically two ways to approach developing a story. One is to work from the outside in: meaning design a plot and fit characters to the events. The second is to work from the inside out. That is to try and inhabit the characters and let what seems natural for such characters to happen within the context of a starting situation. Most writers I suspect use a bit of both approaches, but tend to lean more to one end of the spectrum than the other. I am definite closer to the latter type of writer. For me to start writing I need an opening image and a final image. They may not involve the same characters, but somehow the images seems paired in some paradoxical way. To resolve the paradox, and make the journey from one image to the other, I need to write the play or in this case the novel. This was so for Book of Sands as it has been for all my stage plays.
What drew you to writing your novel in the present tense?
That is an interesting question. I first wrote it in the past tense, but it really did not seem to work for me. Partly, I suspect because I had several flashbacks and then a major section of the story set in the past. So for greater clarity I set a large part of the story in the present tense. Another reason was that I was in the Middle East in 2011 and experienced some of what happened with the uprisings against the ruling dictatorships. This is to some degree the subject matter of the novel. So a second reason was I thought the present tense would give the reader a sense of immediacy that would reflect my own experience of being there.
You write in multiple genres. When you get an idea do you immediately know what genre the project will live in?
I am a serial monogamous genre writer. I was a playwright. I am now a novelist. So the question doesn’t really arise anymore.
In an interview you did with Mark Fearnow you said, “In English, if you need to express a new meaning, you coin a new word. You can’t do that in Arabic. What has happened over the centuries is that old words acquire new meanings by a process of accretion, so that it’s possible to write in a language that is rich in signification and meaning. That is why poetry is the primary cultural form in Arab culture.” Can you speak a little about the intersection of poetry and religion in regards to Omar’s experience in your novel?
This is a huge and contentious subject. He is concerned with a very conservative interpretation of religion. For him, his interpretation of God’s word is the authoritative voice that is everything. But in the world we live in there are many other voices to contend with. Poetry being an example of that multiplicity. Poetry for Omar is subversive for that reason. It corrodes the authority of the divine word and challenges it by appealing to a humanity he has tried to suppress in himself so as to be, in his own eyes, worthy of salvation. It is only at the end of the novel that he reaches a point where he questions the rigidities by which he has lived and finds himself on a threshold of thoughts that deeply disturb him.
What about Book of Sands made you commit to it? Was there a particular character or something you wanted to say?
I think it is hard to sustain yourself over two, three or more hundred pages of writing without having something you want to say. It doesn’t mean that you start out with a clear idea what that is. More likely you find it and hone it as the story takes shape. I guess if I could sum it up in a sentence I wouldn’t need to write a book. But having written a novel I would hope the reader will get what I wanted to say without me trying to explain it. So, I leave it to the reader to find what meaning there is in the story, which, granted, may in its details be different from one reader to the next, but hopefully all the interpretations will lay near enough within a common field.
Your novel has been quite well received. What has that experience been like for you?
It is bittersweet. I am glad there are people who like the novel. But writing is a learning process. So by the end of writing a novel a writer has learned more about the craft and so thinks they could have done better. However unreasonable that may be, it is how I feel.
Do you have any advice for emerging playwrights and novelists?
Relax. You can do it. Don’t panic yourself by being in a hurry.
But also you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Remember that a writer is a reader who writes. So be open to being influenced and to keep learning, but only from the best. There are some very good writers out there worth learning from. It may help, but you don’t have to like their writing to learn from them. You just have to be willing to learn.
Is there anything you’d like to share with nineteenquestions readers that I haven’t asked you about?
I suppose, for me writing fiction is about connecting to some degree with a childhood sense of wonder. I think the more honestly one can do that the more effective the storytelling. That is not to deny a well-told story requires a lot more in terms of craft and vision. But a sense of wonder is probably as good a starting point as any.
Jasmine Ruff is a writer living in Vancouver. She is an undergraduate student studying Creative Writing and English Literature at the University of British Columbia. Her work has been published online in SAD magazine.