Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just When You Thought You Were Prolific

A recent conversation I had with myself on Twitter got me thinking about those ultra-prolific writers. Well, two in particular: Patrick O’Brian and Walter Gibson. You know, guys who write like ONE BILLION words and one HUNDRED novels in over SEVENTY years of churning it out – mostly with good old fashioned pen and paper. 

actually, Gibson used a typewriter

At the same time, I stumbled – literally – across this article. (It was on my laptop, which was on the floor. My TOE found this article.) It’s called “You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!” In it, Jane Friedman argues that “you have to produce a lot of crap…before you can produce anything good.” Therefore, if you hate your writing, you’re “probably” on your way to good.

Risky concept. Because you could so easily be on your way to more crap.

Part of me thinks: Why yes, it’s true. You have to write a lot of crap. But strangely every molecule in my body is gearing up for a revolt. Because then you have guys like O’Brian and Gibson who didn’t agonize for years about their "crap". They just dove right in. Shit, O’Brian got his first positive reviews for a book he published at AGE 12. 

SO I can’t help thinking that these guys just figured out something essential, what other people take years and years to get. What was it? How to tell a decent story? How to make mistakes while you’re being watched?

It’s not to say they didn’t get better over time. I would hope to hell they did, after 70 years, look back and say, yeah, I evolved.

But I think, too, that they found something good and stuck with it, squeezing every last damn little thing out of it. And the things they “found” were things they loved. Gibson was obsessed with the paranormal, and a good half of his hundred books were about that. His big fictional contribution, the Shadow, was deeply influenced by the occult. O’Brian loved the natural world so much that limiting his characters to a single country was always going to be tricky. They would travel the globe! On ships! For twenty books!

Hating your work sounds like a coy tool: a self-policing mechanism to make you strive to be better all the time. To keep you from getting arrogant and thus lame as hell.

But then you have these writers who seem to be dwarfed by their passion for something. They don’t hate their work. It’s not about their work. It’s about their sprawling, obsessive love for something that carries them way beyond self-conscious agony. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf saying of Jane Austen that her “mind had consumed all impediments.” And “for that reason we do not know Jane Austen” - but we know the world she loved.

I think that means that Austen didn’t mope around hating her work, she fell in love with it, and kind of lost herself in it. Not in the bad, domestic-violence way but in the I’m-not-the-center-of-the-universe kind of way. Something else is happening here, not me.

Funny that this came out of a Twitter conversation I had with myself, ye olde ultimate example of self-absorption. But there it is.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Frankly my dear, you don't give a damn.

People are always asking me what my favorite books are, and for some reason I feel like answering that today.

With certain exceptions, I dislike books where the author has ever posed with a cat.

He who resembles Hannibal Lecter


Ye Olde Windbag






Anyway, I don’t usually ask about favorite books unless I’m curious about the individual. Or if someone recommends a book that I fall in love with, then I’ll ask them for recommendations later, but mostly to see if, by some miracle, our tastes match up on more than one title. Tastes are so subjective, it’s crazy to think that someone could like all the same favorite books as me – or even all the same books.

And yet…

Some books just appeal to a high percentage of everyone, even if a lot of them won’t admit it. (“Yes, I read the Da Vinci Code. SUCH bad writing. How on earth did he get published? I mean, the clichés! I almost couldn’t get through it. But it was interesting!”)

Anyway, I’ve also had this discussion a lot lately – what makes a bestseller? I don’t mean paperbacks where the girl gets the dream guy and the CIA nabs another terrorist and two weeks later you can’t remember a single character. I mean books that get HUGE and turn into cultural icons, like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code and George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – or going further back: Clan of the Cave Bear and Lord of the Rings and the Wizard of Oz. Books that not only sell millions of copies but which also inspire a kind of dogged, even twisted loyalty. People read these books because they’re in vogue, but then they fall in love with them and talk about them for years. It seems like everybody and their mother loves them, has read them, is talking about start to feel that they'll never go away. You know what I'm talking about. What makes that kind of book?

Some random answers from various conversations:

1 - Most of those books are fantasy. They involve the creation of other worlds that readers enjoy inhabiting – worlds you wish were real and that you could be a part of. So it takes a fantasy novel to make people fall in love, kind of like it takes airbrushing to make a Victoria’s Secret model….

2 - Corollary to the above: there’s something hardwired in the human brain that makes people appreciate fantasy. Witness the fact that every culture’s main artifacts are their myths, and we still listen to – and tell - and in some cases believe those stories today.

3 – Another corollary: Someone claimed that this was Tolkien’s answer, but whatever: that there’s something about the modern world that is essentially offensive to people’s souls. We live in the realm of the Lorax and we want grass and trees, so we look to novels or films to provide us with gratifying dramas set in magical landscapes with stories that involve the destruction of worlds and the desperate struggle to preserve those worlds. 

4 – Each of these novels did something unique and fresh. (My personal argument here is that each of these novels did MANY things unique and fresh, as well as many things OLD AS HELL, but they did them with alchemical intelligence. And I'm not sure how much of that was even conscious. If you're following me this far, you'll understand when I say I want to write a book called "Breaking Dawn: or When the Author Accidentally Shows that They Had No Idea What They Were Actually Doing." And one for screenwriters called: "Lost.")

5 – Each of these writers was slightly mad and had a gripping, all-consuming passion for their art. And everybody knows that tortured artists are better. (When they're dead.) Which I think is not even remotely true.

there has to be a key!
6 - Number one answer I hear from anyone in the publishing business: this kind of book is never made, there is just a magic conflux of events that blessed their literary souls: proper timing, cultural readiness, and good storytelling. And if anyone could please figure out the recipe for that magic conflux, please notify my publisher.

7 – Sheer dumb luck

8 – Voodoo

9 – A conspiracy of dumb readers, peasants with disposable income who could never be expected to appreciate the true genius of David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell or ye, any author named David (apologies to Sedaris). You know, those authors who say “screw you!” to basic ideas of, I don’t know, plot and character. If more readers appreciated this kind of butt-crack-of-the-bell-curve fiction then there wouldn’t be enough space left for books like Twilight to infect the planet.

(I think, as punishment for their vanity, all the Butt-Cracks who make this argument should be forced to sign their favorite authors’ books at Walmart in hell for however long it took each dissatisfied reader to grapple their way through the tedious fiction.)

10 – I’m sure I left something out.

I think the whole idea of a mystery series is that it's the long road to this phenomenon. For example: Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovitch. It’s like, if you write enough pages about this guy, or that girl, or this small town, then eventually you will have a full-scale fantasy novel on your hands – an utterly complete world that someone can slip into and stay in for years and know every nook and cranny of. One Lee Child book is fun, twenty is...hell, by then you’ve developed a frickin relationship with Reacher. 

You know how there are 5 or 6 flavor receptors on the tongue? Well, I feel like there 5 or 6 taste receptors in the storytelling brain, and apparently fantasy is a big one. Sometimes you taste the finest thing in the world, but if you have too much of it.... You people who are into zombie romance right now, you're like the Big Gulp gang of the literary world. You need to stop. 

Let’s say some of the above ten commandments are true. Then I want to know: What is it about people that makes them like fantasy so much? What is it about fantasy that appeals to people so much? What about all the great fantasy novels that DON'T get big? What are they failing to do, if anything? What sins have they committed? What vanities? What ignorance? Can someone answer that?

Good lord, this is long. 

And where is sci-fi in all of this? Why, the movies and TV. Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, the Matrix. 

Anyway, I’ve been sneaky. I’ve just told some favorite books and movies, except my favoritest of all, the answer of which is embedded in here in the most un-subtle way, if you care to notice. (How much do you really want it??? Ahh see, you don’t. More proof of the Zen mantra that I just invented: asking questions is a cheap man’s way of finding answers. Next time someone asks me what my favorite book is, I’m going to say paper.)

i said there were exceptions

It's Always About That

I've had the craziest deadline for my next novel, Kingdom of Strangers. I mean CRAZY. And actually, I love it. Aside from doubling my caffeine intake and Twitter usage, and halving my sleep, it has prompted me to marvel at just how much quality writing can be accomplished when you put your mind to it. I'm a frickin commando! Already I am fantasizing about writing six more novels this year. And then of course I wake up.

Fittingly, I stumbled on this post by epicblackcar which asks the question: why does writing take so damned long? Because even when you're churning out 4,000 words a day, it still Takes. So. Damned. Long.

Here are the facts: If a novelist writes one novel a year, that comes to about 2,000 words a week. However, most novelists - I know I do - write about 2,000 words a day. So holy shit, people! Where did all those extra words go? That'd be roughly 400,000 words you wrote down the toilet. And that's just in one year. I've been writing for ten!

Epicblackcar suggests, in his second post on the topic, that our primary failing is structure. If we knew exactly what we were going to write, we would write it. But we're more like construction workers who gleefully build a set of stairs, and then realize it leads nowhere. (I encourage you to read his post. It's epic.) I agree that a lot of the slowness comes from the disability we all have to keep the contents of an entire novel in your head all at once. And the fact that you can certainly get carried away.

I also think it's more than that. There's some rhythm involved in how much you write and how quickly you create scenes, something deep and penetrating and psychological and mysterious, and you can surely change the rhythm, but you must respect that there is a rhythm and that it is biological. Writing is like any other bodily function. If you're not in the mood, then doing it can usually put you in the mood, but sometimes not. And don't be silly, you can't do it ALL the time. You'll get chapped. And of course if someone tries to critique your performance, they'd better be kind and loving and wise or you'll never really forgive them, even if they make you something to be proud of.

Anyway, back to my 2,000 words.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The World According to Bakheet Al-Anzi

The humor trail here is familiar: what starts out funny turns quite appalling. A condemnation of some of the hypocrisies of the religious police.

Friday, May 20, 2011

And then I'll shut up

It’s probably weird that the Arab world is going through a massive upheaval, Osama bin Laden is dead, and America has gone to war with Libya, and I haven't said anything. But honestly, I haven’t had much to say that hasn’t already been said in the millions of opinions floating around, so I’m listening – and trying to avoid reading about Bin Laden’s Porn Stash.

Randomly, on the night of Sept 10, 2001, I was reading this book:

Yes, I know, I know. I must have felt a great disturbance in the Force. Actually, it was published in 1999, 2 years before I picked it up, so I already felt I was coming late to the game when I opened it. From what I remember, Bodansky argues persuasively that OBL was a threat, and that Clinton-style responses to terrorism weren’t working, and it was only a matter of time before the big one struck. I fell asleep on the sofa with the radio alarm beside my head, and woke the next morning to voices – not the rock station I was used to hearing, but panic, a sense of emergency. I lay there and listened, and then jumped up in shock.

It's not hard to remember how this was a horrifically new kind of malice. We’d seen hijackers before so we knew about terrorism, and we had Pearl Harbor, but this was kamikaze terror on a whole new level, and it had happened in New York City.

It also introduced the idea that someone hated Americans enough to kill them indiscriminately. Or rather, that someone hated American ideology/government/foreign policy enough to start taking their rage out on ordinary people. (Back in the early days, nobody knew which.)

Sorry, it was time for a bunny. 

Anyway, we were gobsmacked. Because normally, we’re that country that has to turn people away from our teeming shores because we know we’re awesome and everyone wants to live here. But we’re also that country whose citizens routinely travel abroad and claim they’re Canadian. Because everybody hates Americans and we know that, too. We just didn’t know they hated us THAT much.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past decade, it’s that there isn’t much out there – not much that we have done – that has healed the pain from that event. War in Iraq? Afghanistan? Drone attacks on al-Qaeda? Sorry, still feeling shitty. Some of that war has been necessary in regards to al-Qaeda, but no war, no matter how necessary, is going to heal pain. It’s just going to (hopefully) get rid of the potential for more future pain – while attempting not to create too much of its own. A contradiction kept in uneasy balance.

Or not
So the pain is still there. I don’t think about September 11 much, but when it does come up, it still has the power to make me cry. For example, just this week in the Economist:

World Trade Center

The Idealist in me feels a missed opportunity now that Bin Laden is dead. I wanted to see him come around. Watch old age make him decide that porn was all right after all. An apology would have been nice, maybe a few regretful tears. Because you know that no matter how fervently you believe in something, there's always the potential to believe the opposite, and sometimes the more vehemently you believe..... (Sorry. Idealist.) 

Realist: quit cryin' about stupid shit and start worrying about the next one. 

Coming soon to an airplane near you
Of all the things that have happened in the past ten years, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have been the biggest slap in the face to al-Qaeda’s ideology of violent jihad. Although not bloodless, they were consciously non-violent. They’re a “screw that shit” to the fantasy of bringing back a religious caliphate. And every time someone demands a greater female presence in the fledgling Egyptian government, they are twisting the “take that, MF” knife in the chest of al-Qaeda and its fundamentalist corruptions of Islam. Yes, I just used violent imagery to explain non-violence. What can I say? Never lacking for tact.

Egypt, Tunisia, you are rocking the world. Every time you step forward, you’re not just healing your own countries, you’re helping heal some old pain over here, too. (Qaddafi, take a frickin lesson.) 

Alaa Wardi - Maqool

Some beautiful music that also manages to be "instrumentless" (if you don't count using your whole body and then some computer mixing.) Not to mention the awesome-est use of a beard on all of YouTube.

And for another treat, check this out: a cover of Fi Hagat by Nancy Ajram.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Danish Crime Fiction

I think it's a little weird that Sweden and Norway are making such a splash in crime fiction and Denmark is the quiet sister. But Denmark has plenty of its own writing greats, and a few of them are soon to be published in English, so you Scandinavian crime lovers out there, put these on your to-read list!

Jussi Adler-Olsen. Olsen writes a bestselling crime series - about inspector Carl Mørck in "Department Q" - that has been published to high acclaim in 25 countries. Earlier this year, six of his books were on the bestseller lists in Denmark. Only one book has been translated into English so far: Mercy (at Amazon UK), which will be published this year in America as The Keeper of Lost Causes.

Olsen won the prestigious Glass Key award in 2010.

Sara Blædel, aka the Danish Queen of Crime, is another hugely successful author with a crime series that's been published in numerous countries. Her six-book (and counting) series is set in Copenhagen and features Chief Inspector Louise Rick.

Her first American translation, Call Me Princess, will be published by Pegasus Books this August.

Elsebeth Egholm. Author of the popular 'Dicte Svendsen' series. Her first book in English, Next of Kin, tackles some meaty issues: interracial relationships and the tensions between a largely homogenous society and its ethnic minorities. From the description:

Fear and anxiety have spread to Denmark in the aftermath of the London bombings. Late one evening, journalist Dicte Svendsen receives an anonymous package containing footage of a brutal murder and beheading carried out by a sabre-wielding figure dressed in black.

Frustratingly, Egholm's English-language translations are only available in Australia at the moment, but you can protest by emailing any of the following publishers.

Christian Jungersen has one thriller in English and it looks amazing: The Exception. An "intense page-turner," according to Publisher's Weekly. 

Iben, Malene and Camilla work in Copenhagen for the Danish Center for Information on Genocide. Even before Iben and Malene receive death threats with Nazi overtones, the three friends had been ostracizing the new librarian, Anne-Lise. Though evidence suggests Serbian war criminal Mirko Zigic has been sending the death threats, the paranoia and fear of the three friends converge to make Anne-Lise the target of rising suspicion. Victimizing is part of human nature, Anne-Lise's doctor tells her when she seeks advice, and the novel hauntingly pursues this idea to its deepest implications.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Charms of Denmark

Until two weeks ago, I could take all the things I knew about Denmark and fit them into my suitcase. That would be Hamlet, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, fish and Muhammed cartoons.

Then, thanks to my Danish publisher, Audioteket/Mrs. Robinson, I went to Denmark to support the release of FINDING NOUF - DEN SIDSTE SURA in Danish - and now I know a whole lot more about the place, including the fact that their annual crime writers' conference kicks butt. If we're comparing to similar events in America, I'm afraid we've got some catching up to do.

First of all, it was held in a prison.

(Already, they win.) The conference took place in the countryside, in a town called "Horsens", yet on the first day, 5,000 people came. (Five. Thousand.)

They even brewed their own beer for the event.

And yep, pink donuts.

The interviews I gave had me situated in front of the old prison guards' office, where someone had left the original wall decor in place:

So I talked about women in burqas in front of that. Gotta love a place that's comfortable with such a striking clash of elements.

They even did a television interview with me for a public show called Ordkraft that regularly features writers and the arts. (Go on! Really?)

Not to mention that it's always a thrill to see your publisher so enthusiastic about your book:

Bouchercon, Bouchercon, are you listening? Do you see this? I'm not sure St. Louis can top it, but alas, we will try.

I should have seen this coming. About a week before I left, I received my gratis copies of DEN SIDSTE SURA in the mail. They were some of the most beautiful versions of my novel I've ever laid my hands on. I sat around feeling them. I wish I could convey just how solid they feel, how when I touch the pages I get a quasi psychometric flash of paper traveling over drums, ink rollers happily at work. And the cover has a gorgeous Sistine Chapel feel.

So a huge thanks to Mrs. Robinson for the amazing trip to Denmark and the support of my book. You rock!

How Books Used to Be Made

Aside from the silly intro about authors, this is fascinating:

The Invisible Hero

Recently, I had a conversation with author David Corbett about his concept of the Invisible Hero. These are protagonists who are "stigmatized, demonized, or dismissed." Both his Latino-Americans and my Arab investigator fall into this category. The conversation took some lovely, surprising turns. So check it out here at Mulholland Books' blog!

Thursday, February 24, 2011


It's really exciting to watch the news about the Middle East right now, but Twitter is really the place to be. Some suggestions for people to follow/watch with the best news and updates:

@monaeltahawy - Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian columnist and blogger (

@shadihamid - Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center

@sandmonkey - Mahmoud Salem, blogger

@SultanAlQassemi - Sultan alQassemi, commentator on Arab affairs from the National

@abuaardvark - Mark Lynch, Foreign Policy

@weddady - Nasser Weddady, Middle Eastern civil rights activist (

@AJEnglish - Al Jazeera in English, lots of good tweets!

And for some humor: @alqaeda "Working to expel the infidels..."

Inforum Event With Resa Aslan

Here's an INFORUM event I did recently with Reza Aslan, Wajahat Ali and Najva Sol at SF's Commonwealth Club. We're "bridging the Middle East and America through culture".