12 March 2015 - SUAD KHATAB ALI - Guest Author


SUAD KHATAB ALI

- Guest Author -

G'day folks,

Today I introduce a very interesting writer from Washington DC. Suad has published extensively in Arabic, Khaliji & English. She writes fiction and poetry, but also writes for general interest magazines and works as a freelance editor. Suad especially enjoys editing/proofreading theses and dissertations. She was a professor for many years, and has lived throughout the Middle East Europe and the US.
Welcome, Suad ...


1.    TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.

I’m a woman of very mixed ancestry (The Arabian Gulf, the Maldives, Europe, Central Asia) from the United Arab Emirates, a small village just outside Dubai. I currently live in Washington, DC, but I’ve also lived in Paris, New York, Fez, the UK and Japan. I was a professor of Islamic Studies and English Literature, and Director of a Creative Writing program for many years. I was also a magazine editor, but I quit these professions to become a full-time writer. I write for literary magazines and freelance for many newspapers and magazines. My first English-language book, the novel Inshallah, is coming out from AUC Press in 2016. I have published collections of poetry and short fiction—in Arabic and Khaliji, my mother dialect—but they are hard to find and out-of-print.

2.    WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?

I’ve always loved to read and write. I read the classics, Eastern & Western, from the time I was about 9 or 10, in the 70s. Oedipus and The Prince were two books I read when I was quite young. I’m sure I didn’t understand them thoroughly, but I did take away something. I also read poorly translated, and often expurgated, versions of Shakespeare. In secondary school, I showed some poetry to my good friend, Nora, who mailed them to a magazine in Egypt without my consent. I was upset, but they published one poem and paid me a small stipend. I’ve never felt so good about being published.

3.     WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?

Usually, for extended fiction, I begin with an idea, let it percolate for a while, take a few notes, and begin. I tend to know some of the things I’m going to say but allow others things to remain a mystery until the page tells me what I’ve written. Poems come out all at once, in a few minutes’ time. I may change a word or two later on, or, if I find the piece unsatisfactory, delete it entirely. I’ve rubbished at least 50 complete books, probably more. Screenplays, novels, mysteries, academic work, stories, poetry.



4.    WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?

The solitude. The beauty and comfort of editing. Coming across a passage of mine—years after it was written, and not being nauseated.

5.    WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?

All of it.

6.    WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?

I was a waitress in Paris. A very bad waitress in Paris. I also scrubbed dishes in Fez. I was a mediocre dish-scrubber.

7.    WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?

I never feel as if I’ve achieved much. I enjoy the work and feel compelled to do it.

8.    WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?

Poetry, fiction, essays. Always six things going at once.

9.    WHAT INSPIRES YOU?

Music, Dostoyevsky, Graham Greene, Japanese poetry, Turkish coffee, espresso, Pugnitello.

Diogenes the Cynic.

10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?

Poetry, fiction, essays.

11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?

Write and read and revise and edit and write and read and revise and edit and, sometimes, throw it all in the bin. My best short stories come from articles I’ve clipped out of foreign newspapers. Try that.

12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?

No.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?

I work best, at any task, in the morning. Before the world has intervened.

14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?

My office. Nowhere else.



15. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?

I don’t have a favorite anything, but a long lists of favorites. Mahfouz, Martin Amis, Donna Tartt, Philips Levine & Larkin, and Roth. Charles Bukowski finds the beauty of ugliness. I like that. And he finds it in the small good thing. The kind bartender, the skilful assassin. Mrabet. Lady Murasaki. Elliot Perlman. Raymond Chandler. A.E. Robinson. Plato, Nietzsche, Freud.

16. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?

I wrote a piece from the perspective of a young British artist. It was published in The Richmond Review, now defunct. Some Commenters, at the journal’s website, seemed to think that ‘only a British lad’ could have written it. Indeed.

17. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?

Editors, agents and other ‘experts’ are often so bad at reading. It’s sad and appalling. If you don’t like what I write, I can hardly blame you for that. This is the worst drivel in history! Okay, maybe it is. But I regularly get comments that are simply wrong. I didn’t like the baker character. Well, there wasn’t a baker. When you switch to third-person... Didn’t happen. Poems can’t have dialogue. They can. They do. There are no rules, you bloody fool. Cultural gatekeepers are strangely conservative and often reactionary. I don’t mean in Islamic states, where it would be expected, but throughout the West. There are many exceptions, of course, but art should be about—and we pretend, or give lip service to the sentiment that, it is about—exploring what is new, creativity, the spirit of adventure and discovery, the loss of boundaries. However, editors all too often simply want what they’re familiar with, despite what it says on the Mission Statement or Submission Guidelines. Culture shouldn’t be managed from a position of fear and stodgy conservatism, but it often is. Not that art must always be shocking or ground-breaking, but we should never exclude the shocking or the ground-breaking. 

What is more, we shouldn’t expect the New to always announce itself so blatantly. I have had an easy time, very easy, publishing fiction that is overtly experimental, but I have had an exceedingly difficult time publishing work that, although much better than my overtly experimental pieces, is marked by innovation that’s subtle and covert. The editors and referees simply miss the subtlety. They only see what bonks them over their thick heads. Again, please, there are many exceptions.

18. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?

Every moment is an influence, or multiple influences. I have a photographic memory and enjoy/suffer from synaesthesia, which is more of a curse than a blessing, so I live within the funhouse mirror of a Borges fiction. I’m currently writing a novel about childhood. There are too many details that announce themselves too insistently and simultaneously on my consciousness for me to include all of them. I am the lone filing clerk in a vast and constantly-expanding archive.

19. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?

People. A few of them. Film, music, food & drink. I’m not overly fond of nature. Bukowski has a short, stark poem about a young boy who looks at the splendor of nature and is unimpressed. Why does every poet (aside from Bukowski) feel and express in verse the wonder of nature and, after doing so, deem himself an original, important and valuable writer? Surely, we should do more than mimic one another’s stale and predictable sensibilities?

20. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?

NO.



21. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?

Dostoyevsky. After he was reanimated, of course. Not his corpse. Why? He had, it seems, a wonderful mind, a beautiful soul, a real imagination, and quite a personality. He would keep me amused, entertained and diverted. There are no gambling dens on a desert island, so we’d be safe there. You wouldn’t want to be stuck with Kafka, Joyce, any of the Wolves (Wolfs? Wolffs?), Hemingway, Proust, Bierce, Melville. So many suicides, drunks, egoists and generally unpleasant sorts, among writers. Balzac would be great, too. Bukowski would be alright, for a little while.





22. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?

I couldn’t be bothered. They already know whatever I might be able to tell them. They lack only the courage and the sense to do it.

23. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?

More of the same. In the very immediate future, I’m going to walk in the snow (it’s white outside my window now; the mailman is trudging slowly up the walk), play a Gagoosh LP, and make a new batch of cold-pressed espresso. I add small measures of chili powder, cardamom and salt to the process.


24. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?

Probably all of them, especially in the villains who, while writing, I pretend are based on someone else.


25. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?

Very often. Sometimes I write things that are, to my way of thinking, quite good, but then I destroy them. I started this at 19, at university. It seemed to embody a romantic idea, or illusion, of Purity. I still do it sometimes, for slightly different reasons. I’m a budding photographer. Were I younger, I might chuck it all in for snapping pictures.

26. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?

When I was 18, a quatrain leaped into my head, fully developed, like Athena born full-grown and climbing out of Zeus’s skull. It was better than anything I wrote for years, though I didn’t actually seem to ‘think of it’ or have to ‘write it.’ It seemed inspired, though that sounds pretentious and I don’t necessarily think there is value to what I write. I get beauty from others’ writing, but I don’t ever think of others getting anything from my work. I suppose they do, on occasion, and I’m not trying to be falsely humble. I simply don’t consider the reader. I make a living from scribbling words, and I enjoy it, and I can’t stop, and that’s that.

Here’s the scrap of verse: ‘and sometimes I remember well / how at 12 I pres’t for time / and heartbreak’s quick kiss / pres’t her first-time lips to mine.’ I still like the final couplet. I ‘wrote’ this in English, my first artistic use of the language. Why did I employ rhyme? Why was it so old-fashioned (note the archaic spelling)? Never wrote anything like this again, in any language. A mystery.

27. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?

That’s up to them. Generally, I want to present a place and a character or two and a situation that may be unfamiliar. I want the reader to see these things, and begin to understand them, but I don’t have a specific agenda regarding what or how they see.


28. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?

I’d like my books to sell enough copies so that publishers want to keep publishing them.

29.   WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?

I don’t tend to market my work or self at all. I find it embarrassing and would rather write something new than flog the last thing. I’m sure I would be more successful if I did more, but I’m fine with the way things are.




30.  ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?

No.


31. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?

I’ve alluded to a few of these things already. What else? The enslavement of humanity to machines. The increasing self-involvement and uniformity of mankind. Lack of moral courage. The blindness. We ignore all the real problems of the world. We could be much happier, and make others more happy, but we pretend to want, instead, more TV channels and the newest machines and more shoes and cheese-stuffed pizza crust.

32. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?

A collection of Japanese poems. & Sons was excellent. Metro (by Shafee). The Goldfinch. So many good ones. I’m going to go with Khawla's Wall by Andrew Madigan. It’s probably not the very best on this list, but close. It’s currently being translated into French and Arabic. I know the author, a bit, professionally. Perhaps the best mind I have ever encountered, a great dry wit, and so sympatico in many respects, though we’ve only communicated by email. The book is set in Dubai (much better than The Dog, another recent Dubai fiction). It's a literary novel filled with high seriousness, but it's nearly as approachable as a beach read. There is romance, literary anthropology, a brief history of the UAE, a chronicle of Dubai, light-handed analyses of gender, race, class struggle, the plight of the nation’s foreign labor which, like the slaves of Egypt, constructed the city upon its own dead. (As you can see I’m no apologist for my country, though I’m not without sympathetic feelings as well.) An odd and slightly curious novel, but such a good one. I am impressed and humbled that an American wrote what I consider to be the novel of my home city. Khawla’s Wall resonates with Greene, Franzen, Kafka, Memoirs of a Geisha, Coetzee, the Emirati fiction-writer al-Murr. At its heart, the book is about the clash of values and beliefs. The author is an American of Arab, Jewish and European descent and is especially adept at getting into the minds of diverse, unusual characters. I've written about him before and have reviewed his book. I will devote a good part of 2015 to reviewing, discussing and promoting books that should find a wider readership. Hopefully, Madigan’s will do well. 

Although it's easier than ever for new authors to get a book published, it is, ironically and sadly, more difficult than ever for unknown writers to get recognized, distributed and sold widely. The big publishers still have a stranglehold on our reading tastes. Let’s change this. Everyone buy a few independent books this year. Stephen King doesn't need any more of our money, or any more devoted followers. (And of course his sentences are as poor as his stories are compelling.)  



As I say, I’m dedicated to promoting indie writers and achieving parity with the major publishers.]




33.  WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?

Help!

34.  WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?

I do tend to go on. Some of my replies are, I’m afraid, off-puttingly lengthy (sorry). Even for the woman writing them. Which is to say, I’d like to wrap this up soon and get to that cold-pressed coffee. That would make me very happy.

35.  ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?



Here are links to some of my work. One stand-alone story and a collection that features one of my works.




That was one thorough and astute questionnaire. Thank you, Clancy. You must be indefatigable. Thanks also for your interest, thoughtfulness and hard work. 

Salam,  S.



Clancy's comment: Thank you, Suad, for sparing the time to be interviewed. Loved your answers to my questions.

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