Category Archives: Picador

Meet the Author – Omar El Akkad – American War

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MEET THE AUTHOR

OMAR EL AKKAD – AMERICAN WAR

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During the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was delighted to have been invited to meet with the journalist and author Omar El Akkad to talk about his novel American War which is about a second American War Civil War which breaks out in 2074 and how the novel came about, also we talk about his time as a journalist in Afghanistan and if his experiences as a journalist and if this was behind the idea for American War.

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I met Omar at the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham just a few hours before his appearance the Literature Festival and I began by asking Omar to give a brief outline to his novel American War.

OEA: American War is about a second American Civil War that takes place five to six decades from now. The America of that time is an America that is a very different place and the sea level has risen by 60 meters, so that means Florida and the Eastern Seaboard is no more. The Capital is now Columbus, Ohio not Washington and that 100 million people have moved inland from coastal areas and the government has imposed a ban on fossil fuels to halt climate change, but with some Southern States going against this what follows is a second Civil War.

What the Story is primarily about us a family called the Chestnuts that love on the edge of the Southern States, and what this does to the family especially Sarat Chestnut and how the war transforms her.

 

 JF: Where did the idea for your novel American War come from?

OEA: The idea came about when I was watching an interview on a news show and they were commenting on protests in Afghanistan about the American involvement and the question was being asked why do the Afghans hate us so much at the time American Special Forces had to carry out night time raids looking for insurgents and they would ransack houses looking for the insurgents while holding women and children at gunpoint and in Afghan culture this is seen as very offensive and so I thought I would transpose what has been happening to people on the other side of the world and bring it close to home.  

 

 JF: As a journalist you covered the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt as well as the military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri did these assignments give you the idea for American War in any way?

 OEA: The assignments did not play a role in the idea as a whole, the camps I witnessed clearly play a part in American War but the idea of American War was independent of journalism, but I had the idea to try and impose these exotic motivations on what is a primarily a peaceful part of the world but a lot of the experiences do work their way into the book, but the point of writing it was never related to journalism.

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 JF: In your novel the main character is Sarat Chestnut who is six-years-old when the war begins in 2074. How did you create the character that is Sarat and was your primary objective for the novel to have a lead character?

OEA: The character Sarat Chestnut arrived very quickly and when the image of the character showed up it changed the book, so when she arrived it predominantly became her story and even now I still think it is her story. While writing American War I lived with this character Sarat for years, I always knew the arc of the narrative going into writing the novel, I knew how it was going to start and I knew how it was going to end which was difficult as Sarat was living with me through the whole process and I knew how it was going to end. The story of Sarat is very much bang, bang but it is really the quiet moments in her story that will stay with me.

 

JF: As a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan you must have witnessed some appalling scenes, was this a defining moment for you deciding that you wanted to be a full-time writer?

OEA: Fiction was always my first home, I had a story first published when I was in Grade Three and that was it for me. This was what I wanted to do. I do not have a good answer to the question ‘Where are you from’ as I was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada and so that fiction tends to be a good home for people like me. Only when I moved to Canada did I realise that you could make a living out of being a writer, so while at college I got involved with the college newspaper and from there to a journalist with a newspaper as a job for the next ten years. I was sent to Afghanistan when I was still relatively young (25). I did think there would be this Hemmingway moment with dodging bullets but this was not the case. It was not the level of danger I was in but the level of privilege I was in, really I was a tourist, I got to go home and I could tell the stories or they would go untold. I had been asking for years to go then after attending training courses run for journalists heading to war zones which were run by former military personnel learning how to handle yourself while bullets and rockets are falling around you I then found out I was heading to Afghanistan.

 

 JF: Did you set out to write an apocalyptic vision of the future for a second American Civil War?

OEA: It had to be in America, it to be in the heart of the empire and currently the heart of the empire is America. I set about writing a book on the universal nature of revenge but it just so happened that three weeks after I finished writing the book Donald Trump announced he was running for president and it has been released at a time when there is very much a dystopian mind-set in America. There are people who think I started to write this book on 9th November 2016. The truth is there was never a vision of what is currently going on in the States. I actually started to write American War in 20014.

 

 JF: Fossils fuels are the reason behind the storyline what was the thinking behind the idea and were you making a statement through the story?

OEA: I was looking at analogies to the first civil war but then also looking at a very rich and commercial country that is America were the use of fossil fuels made some people very rich but at the same time destroyed many others. Many comments said that the second civil war would be fought over race not the environment. It is the idea of stubbornness and because we have always done it this way and that is why we are going to continue doing it this way. This is a mind-set so prevalent in the States and elsewhere.

 

 JF: One the aspects through your novel is the proliferation and use of Drones (The Birds) and what seemed their random use. Was the use of Drones in the book based on experiences in Afghanistan?

OEA: Under the Obama administration they used the term ‘targeted killing’ they would send drones to places such as Libya and try kill specific targets and every now and then they would miss and hit something like a wedding and this is what the military would term as ‘collateral damage’ so the use of drones (the birds) and the random killing of civilians by drones was used in the book and on American people.

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JF: With Sarat being turned into an Instrument of war and the terrible acts she commits do you want the reader to have sympathy for Sarat?

OEA: What I wanted more than anything by the time you got to the end of the book not the reader to like Sarat or to apologise for her, but to understand how she got to the place she was, when we about radicalisation or extremism we talk about people being exposed to that. We only get to know about these people at the finish line after they have done whatever horrible thing they are going to do. So by the time you get to the end of the book I don’t want you to like Sarat I just wanted to show the work that went onto creating that kind of person.  

 

JF: We moved on to talking about how Omar went about writing American War and his writing space at home.

OEA: Yes, when I wrote the book we were renting a house in Portland. One of the spare bedrooms became my writing space and the walls were covered in maps redrawn with new borders and also to pin ideas and even sea level measurements to the point of what the coast would look like after increases in sea levels of 1 or two meters and then even higher and then how the map of the United States would then look. There was also source documents that I later used in the book some of these I wrote as the book progressed.

 

JF: How many draughts of American War did you have to write?

OEA: By the time we went to print we were on draught number twelve, my editor is surgical. Though the finished book is extremely close to the first draught. When my editor first read it then bought it he said it was not perfect but it was special. What followed was just a cleaning up process than say a major change to the narrative. Writing for me is filled with anxiety like it is with many writers. The editing was ten times worse than writing the book. I chose to exclude all technology from the book so there are no smartphones in the narrative on American War.

 

 JF: What would you like the reader to away from American War at the end?

OEA: What I hope is empathy and to understand how people get to a place where they can do horrible things. Bad can be born but evil needs to be created and sometimes these can be really complex and we have an obligation to understand how people get to the place, if we are serious in eradicating these issues. Other than that the reader just reads a story of a character named Sarat Chestnut.

 

 JF: Looking ahead to the future are there plans for you to write a second novel and any plans for you to return to the field as a journalist?

OEA: Is there going to be a next book, well that decision is for others not just me. I have an idea that early last year the research has taken many months. I started writing in January this year then the book tour for American War started and everything went on the back burner. As for the journalism I still do some which includes book reviews and features. My wife and I had our first child a few weeks after the book came out and that has given me a different look at risk. But if I was asked to cover another conflict and if there was an important story to convey I would go as it is the most important form of journalism.

My grateful thanks to Omar El Akkad for taking the time during his short stay in the UK to talk to me about his debut novel American War and also to Emma Finnigan for her grateful help in setting up the interview.

American War is now available in Hardback through Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

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The God People by Hannah Kent

From the author of the highly acclaimed novel Burial Rites comes her second novel The Good People and the idea for this book came while writing Burial Rites and confirms that Hannah Kent is a master storyteller.

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Set in 1820’s Ireland and has folklore at its heart, something that was prevalent in the 19th Century. The story is based in County Kerry in South West Ireland. Nóra Leahy’s husband Martin has just died in mysterious circumstances as he was not suffering an illness. He just died very suddenly. That same year they lost their daughter and as such they take in their four-year-old Grandson Micheál but he is disabled and cannot walk or speak and he has been kept hidden from public gaze, Nóra has hired Mary to care for Micheál but the whispers and gossip has already begun. Just what has caused young Micheál to go from being a happy and healthy young boy to one who is now disabled.

Coming into the story apart from Mary we have Nance Roche who is the local ‘healer’ but is seen otherwise by the village priest who is concerned about her actions and the affects it will have on the villagers. To the three women they now come to believe that Micheál is a ‘changeling’ he has been taken by the fairies. For Nóra going through a time of hardship and misfortune she cannot understand why life has turned against her home. Now Nance believes she can cure Micheál and bring him back from the fairies. This is a story that is steeped in Irish folklore and superstition. Hannah Kent’s meticulous research opens up a world from the past like looking through a window as it is so vivid and detailed. Each character has been brought to life that the reader becomes so deeply involved in the story that I found it was difficult to leave the story alone. This is not just a novel but is a history lesson as you learn of the hard life of the small communities, surviving on potatoes and Poitín and their local folklore all come to light in a deeply painful and heart-breaking novel.

As Nance goes about treating Micheál and the treatment using local remedies become more and more severe it becomes apparent to anyone reading that what is going on here is nothing short of madness. But remember this is the 19th Century and these small isolated communities are cut off from the rest of the world. Kent has brought to life a past long forgotten and how she has brought the past to life and the local language she brings to the reader is deep and rich.

The Good People is not a book to be taken lightly and it will shake your very emotions. This story is actually based a real event which makes reading it more personal. It has been a long time to wait for Kent’s second novel but the wait was worth the wait. It is beautifully written and if you have read Burial Rites you will know just how Kent paces her writing. This is no exception. A truly gifted writer.

Thank you to Kate Green for the advanced review copy.

The Good People by Hannah Kent is published by Picador and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.

 

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

What is Not Yours is Not Yours

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

 

The Last Word Review

 Ambitious mix of short stories that are captivating and will catch your literary imagination. A gifted young writer.

 

Keys play an integral part in Helen Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories, in fact they are pivotal to all nine stories. Oyeyemi was named as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2013 now returns with What is Not Yours is Not Yours a fascinating and wondrous collection of stories that just plays with the reader’s imagination with stories akin to fairy stories and a strange and beautiful playful mix of stories and characters.

Starting with the first and my favourite story is ‘Books and Roses’ and starts as many fairy story might ‘Once upon a time in Catalonia a baby was found in a chapel.’ The story about two women both seeking those that should be closest to them but abandoned at birth. Central to this story is a key to a locked garden and to a library. This story is work of a genius, superbly written and conceived from start to finish.

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With each story involving secrets and locked doors and keys What is Not Yours is Not Yours is unique and fresh like nothing I have read before and I am a lover of short stories and many will treasure like me each one. Many will have a personal favourite and I will not spoil it for you about the remaining eight but they are just a short story aficionados dream a collection of masterful writing of searching, supernatural puppeteers and of sexuality all appear and there are tentative links with some characters appearing from one story to another, but the reader must pay attention to each story.

The beauty of Oyeyemi’s writing is that it shifts so eloquently from one story to the next seamlessly spellbound at every new story. Like a rather good bottle of wine you just savour every moment of each story to the last.

I have read What is Not Yours is Not Yours twice since receiving it a few months ago and I was truly absorbed in each story and left emotional both times at its end. My recommendation is go and but a copy on its release and I promise you will be captivated by each story and the characters you will encounter.

Credit must also go to Picador for the stunning finished copies that will be appearing in bookshops on its official release day, one of the most beautiful books I have come across, when you hold a copy in your hands you will not want to leave the bookshop with a copy.

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My thanks to Sophie Jonathan (Picador) for an advanced review copy.

What is Not yours is Not Yours written by Helen Oyeyemi and published by Picador on 21 April 2016. Available through Waterstones and all good bookshops

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A LIttle Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Review Date: 1 August 2015

Author: Hanya Yanaihara

Release Date:  13 August 2015 (HB)

Publishers: Picador

ISBN –10: 1447294815

ISBN – 13: 978-1447294818

736pp

Available in Hardback and Kindle.

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The Last Word Review

Harrowing and disturbing account of child abuse that will leaves the reader shattered

This is only the second novel written by Hanya Yanagihara after The People in the Trees (2014). Remarkably this took Yanagihara around 20 years to write, this time round A Little Life took just 18 months from start to finish despite it being a mammoth 736 pages long.

This is a story of friendship and a harrowing account of child abuse and self-harm to the leading character. Do not be put off by this as there is more to this story that is also an emotional intelligent and a beautifully written novel that is set to become a modern day classic.

The story starts with four classmates in New York now venturing into the wide World and to start their respective careers. I thoroughly liked the way that Yanagihara introduces each of the four characters and their in-out friendships and relationships at times raw, but this is story that will stretch the boundaries this is humanity laid bare and will at times really test the reader.

As the story unfolds and Jude the lead character comes to the fore he is now a very successful lawyer in New York the story now takes on a much darker tale one that some will find very difficult and upsetting, at times I had to put the book down and catch my breath and think about what I have been reading. Here the story of Jude as a child and his memories being abandoned at birth exploited and abused by Monks, forced into child prostitution and then badly injured after he is taken captive and tried to escape the need to self-harm is one of desperation, I became quite attached to Jude some will think differently. He is mentally scarred and physically disabled. Yanagihara has written the book in a way that does not shy away from the horrors of child abuse and the consequences for the character and at times it is deeply harrowing. He is as he says ‘Trapped in a body he hates with a past he hates’ this is self-loathing as it can get. Yanagihara does not trap herself here as the story could become totally submersed with Jude, but in the end the main story line that comes out is one of love and compassion even tenderness that can only be found through the love of those that really do care and have his best interests at heart.

The beauty of the book for me lays in the first 70 pages, it leads you to think that this is just a story of four friends starting to make their way in life, some may find this slow considering the length of the book, but not me, it leads you in sucks you in even, it takes you on a journey then the who book then opens up to the reader.

Is this something that Yanagihara learnt from her first novel The People in The Trees time will tell but I have a feeling when this book is launched many will seek out her first novel and will be immersed in an outstanding debut novel. A Little Life is destined for greater things. As I write this Yanagihara’s A Little Life has been Long Listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and is more than a worthy winner now destined to become an all-time classic.

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Meet the Author

Hanya Yanagihara

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Hanya Yanagihara is an editor at Conde Nast the author of The People in The Trees, a book which she says she started writing when she was 21, and which took her nearly 20 years to complete.

She started her career in New York working in the publicity department of Vintage Books working for a number of New York publishers. From 1998 to 2005 she edited The Asian Pacific American Journal, before joining Conde Nast Traveler in 2005. Her ‘Word of Mouth’ section was noninated for a National Magazine Award in 2007.

Yanaihara has edited several books and served as a New York Foundation for the Arts Literary Fellow in both 2001 and 2008. She currently lives in New York. A Little Life is her second novel and has now been Long Listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.        

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