Creating Arabic-speaking foreigners in fiction

Introduction

I’m an academic linguist turned novelist, and my academic training has been tangled with my creative practice ever since I tried to write fiction.

This article began out of curiosity. After I completed a trilogy bristling with Arabic speakers, it occurred to me that I’d achieved the technical effects of making them sound foreign virtually on autopilot. I started drafting a blog post trying to analyse the techniques I’d used to create foreignness.

Around the same time, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s fiendishly challenging The Crossing with its swathes of untranslated Spanish dialogue. McCarthy brought me up with a start: His treatment of foreignness was a universe away from my own.

I had to look more widely. I put my blog post aside.

The framework

I made a fresh start with an article called How authors create foreigners and foreignness in fiction, where I used examples from Philip Kerr, Michael Mohammed Ahmed, Agatha Christie, Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway to develop a framework of propositions about how authors create foreign characters in fiction. In summary, what I proposed was:

Foreignising is manifested in voice—that of narrator, author or character.

The purpose of foreignising varies according to voice.

Foreignising techniques include:

  • Foreigner talk
  • Untranslated terms and dialogue
  • Definitions, including: Explicit definitions, Implied definitions

With a set of propositions to hand, I was in a position to return to my trilogy. and to further develop the framework.

The Siranoush Trilogy

The trilogy comprises a series of stand-alone novels, Cairo Mon AmourBury me in Valletta and The Sunset Assassin, set in Egypt, Malta and Australia respectively between 1973 and 1978. Each novel is written from alternating points of view of the key protagonist Pierre Farag and several others, all in close third person. This allowed me to foreignise the protagonists’ inner thoughts as well as their dialogue. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with Pierre rather than bringing in the other characters.

Pierre is a half-Armenian and half-Coptic private detective from Cairo. He is inadvertently entangled in an espionage plot during the Yom Kippur War, which launches him on a chain of perilous scrapes across the world, ending on a crocodile farm in remote northern Australia. I portray him as an Arabic speaker since I know quite a lot about Arabic (my Armenian is so poor that I remained silent on that dimension of Pierre’s linguistic world).

Dialogue, inner thoughts, and a hall of mirrors

Foreignising dialogue is relatively straightforward, notwithstanding the mental tricks the reader has to unconsciously perform: If the character is supposed to be speaking in a foreign language, the author naturally composes the dialogue in English, but may choose to play some tricks to make it sound Arabic-flavoured, Russian-flavoured, etc. But if the character is speaking in English, the writer might tweak it with some foreigner talk using nonstandard grammar, odd vocabulary choices or even spelling out an accent.

The fragile notion of ‘inner thoughts’ throws up its own exquisite dilemmas. I frame Pierre’s thoughts for the reader in English, but I tacitly ask you to suspend disbelief and assume they occur mainly in Arabic. But it gets more tricky: I’m asking you to assume those thoughts rattle around his head in perfectly formed Arabic sentences that happen to look like perfectly formed English sentences on the page*.

A hall of mirrors, indeed.

Voice

Based on the proposed framework, I firstly foreignise Pierre as character, typically through his manner of speech; and when he holds the current point of view, I foreignise him as  author, typically through his inner thoughts.

Character

Pierre is pedantically precise in his multilingual skills and restrained in his emotions—a man ‘closed in on himself’, who thinks carefully before he speaks. I often foreignise him by placing tripwires in his English competence. For example, in The Sunset Assasin, he travels to the remote Australian town of Broken Hill to interpret for a Syrian in a court case. But he is told on his arrival that the gentleman has “karked it overnight”.

“Oh dear,” Pierre said, disguising his puzzlement. Perhaps the police sergeant meant the Syrian had changed his plea. “Should I have a word with him nevertheless?”

I’m careful not make Pierre into a caricature through foreigner talk. The ‘bad Arab’ trope is so deeply entrenched in novels and films that I absolutely refuse to propagate it (see further discussion here) .But I justified a drop of foreigner talk in these examples from minor characters in Cairo Mon Amour, the first of which attempts to portray Russian being spoken badly by an Arabic-speaking Soviet Embassy driver:

“Comrade boss. Why Russian lady all go home?”

And in the second case, which depends purely on accent, an Arabic-speaking waitress repeats a customer’s order made in English:

“Tea wiz milk shocolate kek.”

Author

The locus of author is where the hard work of foreignising goes on in The Siranoush Trilogy. Here is Pierre in Cairo Mon Amour on the last ship to leave Alexandria at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. He hasn’t had much to do with Americans, and he is shocked at the behaviour of the fleeing US diplomatic staff:

Braying like donkeys, [the Americans] complained that they “only ever sailed in fucking first-class” or “wouldn’t stand for a fucking starboard cabin.” The very air was thick with the ugly English word. It was as if a race of civilised beings had reverted to savagery. The women, Pierre thought, were even more vulgar than the men.

In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre reflects on finding his arch-enemy Colonel Dimashqi confined to an iron lung. He inwardly reflects with baroque verbal ornamentation:

… was this an evil dish cooked up from British duplicity and Egyptian bald-faced guile? Oh, the tricks of la perfide Albion.

And here, Pierre experiences a Wimpy Bar for the first time in 1975:

He’d seen the English seated before these Wimpies through the window of the ‘Bars’ where they were purchased: Flat anaemic buns containing a strip of grey meat, next to desiccated yellow potato chips.

Numerous other examples of the author voice occur in the following section, where we turn to foreignising techniques. As we will see, the discussion will elaborate the framework set out in the introduction.

A learnable set of Arabic terms

I chose a small set of Arabic words—initially defined and then left in the original—for the reader to learn through repetition and prompts. Several of these occur through the entire trilogy, e.g. khawaga ‘foreigner’, bawwab ‘doorman’, shabkah ‘network’, sharmouta ‘bitch’. The whole set amounts to about ten words in total, with no more than eighteen instances of a word in any of the books—just enough in my reckoning to garnish the text without overloading the reader. The words bawwab and shabkah, for example, are part of an important plot device: Pierre’s work as a private investigator entails maintaining his ‘network’, which includes Cairo’s doormen, his eyes and ears on the city’s apartment blocks.

Here’s how I embedded an explicit definition into Pierre’s inner thoughts:

He had spent most of the previous evening consulting his shabkah, as Fawzi called it; well, you could call it a ‘network’ if the word adequately described the troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite.

There’s a really smart trick here (I modestly aver): shabkah in line 1 is the signal for us to pretend Pierre is thinking in Arabic; the quote marks around ‘network‘ in line 2 signal that the pretence is briefly lifted.

Sometimes I tutored the reader obliquely with an implied definition, again in those slippery inner thoughts:

And then what if the lawyers discovered that he had been keeping the sharmouta in luxury all this time? How would she bear the shame?

Zouzou Paris, a ‘bitch’? Well, she would say that. Everybody else did.

Let me round off my set of learnable Arabic words with ya’ni, the Arabic conversational filler roughly equivalent to ‘I mean’ or ‘you know’, which occurs about a dozen times in Cairo Mon Amour. Here I put it in the mouth of Major Fawzi, a man who relishes his prowess in the English language:

“My dear friend Pierre Farag,” he began, “has persuaded me that your situation presents opportunities for all of us to profit. We have ya’ni put our noggins together in your absence.”

“Noggins?” Bellamy wasn’t sure whether Fawzi’s quaint English was part of a sophisticated act or simply the result of a diet of Noel Coward and P.G. Wodehouse.

Well-known Arabic expressions

I also added a handful of Arabic expressions like In shaa’ Allah, inserted without translation in the hope that the reader will recognise them without help. Habibi and habibti, as Zouzou and Pierre address one another, fall into this category, occurring consistently untranslated throughout the trilogy.

Crosslinguistic puns

These can be pressed into foreignisation service if you’re lucky enough to find one or two. In Bury me in Valletta, Pierre and his wife Zouzou are involved in a conspiracy involving Stash, a political extremist who poses as a hippy; I have Pierre use the word khunfus (beetle) eleven times to describe Stash. It’s a colloquialism used in Egypt in the seventies, supposedly because hippies were associated with the Beatles. It comes in for some handy wordplay when Stash is found murdered:

“So the khunfus is a police informer,” Zouzou said. “Squashed like a cockroach.”

Cultural motifs

Soon after this remark, Pierre’s wife Zouzou has a glass of karkady, which by now the reader has learned is hibiscus flower tea. She yearns for a glass of this comforting drink at times of stress; the further the couple stray from Cairo, the stronger the yearning. I’d categorise this further as a cultural motif that pervades the trilogy. I had fun in The Sunset Assassin when a Sydney journalist visiting Zouzou mistook karkady for Ribena.

Another such cultural motif was kushari, the hi-carb Cairo street food; I used a kushari stall repeatedly as a meeting point; much more colourful that meeting at the Post Office! The reader’s tuition was delivered by an English speaker through an implied definition:

“As long as I don’t have to eat that horrible kushari stuff. If I have to make a run for it, I don’t want a belly full of lentils and macaroni.”

Unique Arabic words and phrases

Items occurring only once or twice in the trilogy were popped in with a definition when I felt I needed to remind the reader that the language in use is Arabic; I’m obsessively careful to know who is supposed to be speaking what in any piece of dialogue. This example is the sole instance of masri where I used an editorial definition to explain the meaning, and to confirm that Pierre is thinking in Arabic:

If anyone had bothered to ask him, “What are you?” he’d have said “masri”, ‘Egyptian’.

And in the next case, we have some brinkmanship between two Arabic-speaking British diplomats, this time with the implied definition tactic applied to a unique Arabic phrase:

“You’ve got some nerve. Bloody nerve, I’d call it. I don’t know why I don’t take you outside, point at you and yell gasus isra’ili.”

“Perhaps I am an Israeli spy, Don. Walk out the door and give it a try.”

And the following implied definition of a unique word occurred when Pierre’s nemesis Dimashqi asks Pierre’s forgiveness as he lies gasping in an iron lung. I have Pierre implicitly define bashar in his inner thoughts after the stricken Dimashqi utters the word in dialogue:

“I can offer a token of expiation.”

“There is no need. You have my forgiveness.”

“But still, we live in this material world. We are bashar, with debts to pay and accounts to be settled.”

Bashar– human? The man had lived the life of a devil. What kind of token could stand in expiation?

And here’s another tactic—a repeat definition of a unique expression, when the English version is uttered immediately after the Arabic phrase:

Allah yarhamuh.” The woman looked away, and then said, “I had a son too.”

“He died?”

“Nineteen sixty-seven.”

Allah yarhamuh, God bless his memory,” Lucy said.

Translated and repurposed Arabic proverbs

I threw in two of these for exotic effect:

“Ha! They whine about the breeze around their turbans, but what about the farts in their drawers?”

To quote the note background notes to Cairo Mon Amour, the ‘breeze around their turbans’ remark is my modification of an Egyptian proverb in J.L. Burckhardt’s Arabic Proverbs, (Curzon Press, 1994, p.3). The translation of the original reads, ‘If the turbans complain of a slight wind, what must be the state of the inner drawers?’

The second is my modification of another of Burckhardt’s proverbs. In the original (p. 114), ‘The owl has become a poetess’. I refashion this as:

“So with the help of his movie cronies the owl became an actress, as the old saying goes.”

I should add that Johann Ludwig Burckhardt died in 1817, so I’m not sure that the originals would be recognised in contemporary Egypt. But that’s not the point; the repurposed versions are an Orientalist-inspired strategy to add exotic flavour to the text.

Let me add one more related device, the translated foreign simile, an example being ‘as confused as an ant’. I think this works in foreignising the text simply because English does not use this simile.

Conclusion

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article. I haven’t set out to establish an exciting new academic subdiscipline that will bridge linguistics and fiction writing; I learned long ago that they don’t march in step, but they do have interesting encounters from time to time.

While I was writing this article, I was conscious that I had focussed solely on writing in English. I’d love to hear from linguists or authors about how languages other than English create foreigners. Let’s start a conversation.

I’d also love to hear more generally from other linguists who write fiction: Right now I’m the sole example I know!

*I should make it clear that the notion of ‘inner thoughts’ discussed here is not underpinned by psychological theories about inner speech proposed by scholars such as Vygotsky.

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You can find details of my novels here.

Copyright © 2022 by Stuart Campbell

Frozen creative muscles thaw after lockdown

The sun’s shining in Sydney, lockdown is over. I’ve eaten in restaurants, been shopping in real shops. The memories of Click n’Collect are fading fast.

After ten years of writing novels and a lifetime of reading them, I found myself emotionally stalled for eighteen months. My sense of humour disappeared. Writing seemed futile, irrelevant, pointless.

Three weeks into freedom, the urge to read and write fiction is back.

The pleasure of reading was the first to reappear. As vaccination rates soared in Sydney and a date for the end of lockdown was announced, I happened to be staying in an AirBnB with a well-stocked bookcase. I knocked off a Richard Flanagan a Christopher Koch and a Gwendoline Riley (my delicious first) in short order.

I knew all along that I had to keep my writing muscles in order, and I’d spent three months of confinement revamping my backlist, including unpublishing a debut novel that I now find mortifying. I regained my rights from the publisher of Cairo Mon Amour and made it the first book in The Siranoush Trilogy, followed by Bury me in Valletta, and rounded off with a new work The Sunset Assassin. I designed a new set of covers and independently published the trilogy in August 2021.

Meanwhile, the old urge to create was nudging. I had in my files the unfinished draft of a complex speculative-cum-dystopian novel Patria Nullius I’d been working on for six years. I’d pestered my writing critique group with it, putting it away for six months and then dragging it out again and again. The problem was the conclusion, or lack thereof. With the thawing of my spirit, the ending leapt out at me. I finished the ms. with a sense of satisfaction rather than despair.

I made myself a promise with Patria Nullius – that I’d spend a year trying to find an agent or publisher for it. I’ve been happy to independently publish my books in recent years, but there’s something special about this book. After six years of struggle, it deserves a chance! So Patria Nullius is now sitting in the slush pile of an Australian literary agent, no doubt one of many I’ll be querying in the next year. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Eminent Professor Susan Bridehead works for a university in New Canberra, an enclave of Oxford that houses the Australian government in exile, now evolved into a monarchy ruled by a mining dynasty. As she completes a flattering history of the dynasty, she works on a parallel story, typing on an antique Remington to avoid electronic surveillance. The story recalls her early life in a largely depopulated Australia and her marriage to Jude, a naive mystic. As Susan’s health falters, she struggles to finish the story of Jude and to reconcile herself with the ghastly prophecy that haunted him.*

The Sunset Assassin is set in Manly, my adopted home town. I set the novel in 1978, and loved the challenge of recreating the atmosphere and language I encountered four decades ago fresh from London. Manly’s an intriguing place with its famous Corso connecting the ferry wharf to the surf beach, and the back streets and alleys that the tourists tend not to penetrate – a setting perhaps for an Australian Brighton Rock.

And that’s where I’m headed with my next work – a historical thriller set in Manly. It’s still in the planning stage, and I’ll be submerged in the New South Wales State Library archives for a while yet.

Happy reading!

Stuart

*For the odd Thomas Hardy tragic, you might guess that this book is partly scaffolded by elements of Jude the Obscure.

YOU CAN FIND LINKS TO MY BOOKS HERE

Stuart Campbell tells how culture shock inspired The Sunset Assassin.

A few weeks after I arrived in Australia in 1977, I was taken to a sporting club in Sydney’s inner west with some of my wife’s Armenian cousins. The men were sharply turned out in shortie leather jackets and collared shirts. Fresh from England, I was wearing the kind of gear a would-be intellectual would wear for a pint at a London pub—Levi’s and a denim shirt over a roll neck sweater. When my turn came to sign in, a bouncer stopped me.

“Jeckut?” I thought he said.

“Sorry, didn’t get that.”

“Jeckut.” No upward inflection this time. “Follow me, sir.”

My wife and her relatives had already crossed the ginger-carpeted entrance hall and were weaving their way through the flashing pokey machines.

The bouncer took me by service lift to a room with a rack of blazers in the same ginger tone as the carpet, with the club’s emblem on the breast pockets. I put on a jeckut and went back to the sign-in desk amid smirks and nudges. I might as well have had pommy git chalked on my back.

Well, that is how I felt at the time. Perhaps the staff smirked, perhaps they were just cheerfully following regulations. When I found the Armenian relatives, they shrugged and went back to enjoying the floor show and seafood-in-a-basket. I backed my chair into the purple drapes, fuming at my humiliation.

What was really ailing me was culture shock: Not the jarring shock of a Pom freshly arrived in Egypt or China. No, Sydney looked easy for a Londoner to slide into—until you actually tried: The class categories of home didn’t align; people came across as superficially affable but unreadable; accents were no guide to working out who was who. It was impossible to know where you fitted in.

Canberra, where we spent our first year, was even more mystifying. Like many newcomers, I spent hours driving around looking for a non-existent city centre. I was studying at the Australian National University, and a fellow student invited me to a barbecue at the farm where he lived outside town. OK, so I didn’t expect a thatched cottage, and ducks in the pond, but I wasn’t prepared for sitting on a stump eating charred sausage and ketchup in sliced white bread while my new chum blasted vermin with a rifle.

Today, my regular bike ride takes me along Manly Beach. At Shelly Beach I change down to bottom gear for the short push up to the car park, where I stop to look over the Tasman Sea. Blue headlands to my left stride thirty kilometres northwards to Palm Beach. Waves smash on jagged rocks below. I change up a gear and head towards St Patricks Seminary, the golden neo-Gothic pile that overlooks Manly. Then it’s the long sweep down past the art deco cottages of Darley Road to the ferry wharf, and through the back streets to my home. If there’s a place in the world where I fit now, it’s Manly. Which brings me to my latest book.

When I was planning The Sunset Assassin, the third novel in the Siranoush Trilogy, the theme of culture shock was giving me an irresistible itch. In Bury me in Valletta I had installed my Armenian-Egyptian protagonist Pierre and his wife Zouzou in a seedy flat in London:

“We’re out of cigarettes, Zouzou. Do you need anything else from the shop?”

“A box of sunshine, bring me that.”

Outside, a bluster of April wind chased away the sooty bus fumes and the smell of damp pavements. He waited in the Pakistani shop behind an orderly line of lumpy British in their anoraks and bobble hats. The shelves bore the packaged goods that spoke of stuffy bedsits just like Pierre’s: Kit-E-Kat, Spam, PK chewing gum, HP Sauce.

Now when an itch starts, you’ve got to scratch it. Cycling the back alleys of Manly during the 2020 COVID lockdown, I came across a knot of shabby lanes where I decided to instal Pierre and Zouou to see how they would cope in 1978 Australia. Conveniently, I’d left the couple at the end of Bury me in Valletta with airline tickets to Australia and false passports in the names of Kevin and Rhonda O’Donnell. I found Pierre a job in the State Translation Office as a court interpreter, so I could sharpen his sense of being neither insider nor outside.

His great challenge is to master Australian English:

Pierre took a mental note: A lend of you—another new expression to file away; he was fluent in Armenian, English, French, and Arabic, and could make a fair impression in half a dozen other languages. But the victory over Australian English was yet to be won.

It’s not just the language that confounds Pierre. The novel opens with his first abortive attempt to entertain work colleagues at a front yard barbecue. The day is furiously hot, and the firelighters won’t catch. The catering arrangements confound Pierre:

“Tell them to bring their own meat and grog. Just make the salad,” his colleague Hermann had said. Could this be true? It would be unforgivably rude in Egypt, laughable in fact. Why eat your own food in someone else’s home? “Keep a few snags and some booze on hand in case you’re a tad short,” Hermann had added. 

After the guests wolf down the free salad and guzzle the emergency box of Moselle, the party descends into sullen political mudslinging under the blistering sun. The incident was actually inspired by a party that my wife and I organised in 1978—our first attempt in our new homeland. We’d acquired about ten friends in Sydney by then, and we invited them all to our flat one Saturday night. Two turned up, sour at the turnout, and the sorry affair was over by 9pm.

A clear memory of my early days in Sydney is the darkness of the garden suburbs at night. Unlike English suburbia, where nature has succumbed to centuries of taming and streets are brightly lit, these Australian gardens seemed to cower on the fringes of the hostile bush. Even today I get flashbacks of desolation if I happen to drive at night through northern suburbs like Wahroonga or Pymble.

Let me give the last words to Pierre’s wife Zouzou, riding her scooter home late one night:

Broad bungalows stood in darkness, front gardens sinister with dense shrubs and trees. Her headlight picked out the eyes of a startled possum scuttling along the top of a fence. A silvery whisp strung between trees indicated the fresh web of a spider hanging at eye level, ready to tickle the face of a blundering human. The very air was alien with its blend of night aromas, some minty, some sour, some bearing an enigmatically savoury tang. A dog barked, and another replied from six gardens away — ‘Yes, I’m scared and lonesome like you!’

My new novel is set in Manly, Australia. Find out why.

Manly, Australia’s favourite seaside town, is a location spotter’s treasure trove. Sitting on a peninsula overlooked by the neo-gothic pile of St Patricks, the town is an architectural mish-mash of Art Deco shopfronts, Federation era cottages, glitzy apartment blocks, and brown-brick walk-up flats. In normal times, thousands of tourist take the thirty-minute ferry ride from Sydney to Manly wharf and amble down the Corso, the street that bisects the peninsula and leads to the ocean beaches. But behind the beachwear shops and restaurants lies another Manly, unseen by the tourists, that offers an edgy fiction setting.

Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown in April 2020 forced me off the seafront promenade into the empty back streets to avoid hordes of gasping joggers deprived of their gyms. But my walks opened up corners of the town I’d barely noticed. Soon my meditative strolls turned into location spotting for the novel I’m currently writing.

The Impeccables is set in Manly in 1978. Why Manly and why 1978? Well, the previous book in the series ended with the main character Pierre Farag exiled to Australia in 1975. I needed somewhere to settle him down for a few years before he finds himself unwillingly involved with a clandestine right-wing group that aims to blow up the Opera House.

And I love a writing challenge: I couldn’t resist the idea of reconstructing the look and feel of the town where I came to live in 1978 — an era before iPhones and credit cards, when the seafront was lined with pre-war blocks of flats rather than glitzy apartments. I’ve spent hours studying the 1978 Sydney newspapers and browsing the brilliant Lost Manly FB group pages.

To recap the series, the novella Ash on the Tongue, set in 1972 in Cairo, introduces Armenian-Egyptian private eye Pierre Farag and his first incursion into the world of espionage. In the full-length novel Cairo Mon Amour, Pierre and his actress girlfriend Zouzou are drawn into a plot to conceal the launch of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In Bury me inValletta, we meet Pierre and Zouzou in exile in London in 1975. As sleeper agents they are reactivated by the UK government to sabotage an IRA gun-running plot in Libya and Malta. My current novel in progress The Impeccables, finds Pierre and Zouzou exiled to Sydney, where they are drawn into a plan to stage a coup against the Australian government. The novel ends again in exile, but this time to a remote spot in tropical Far North Queensland. I haven’t decided whether there will be a fifth book in the series; it depends a bit on whether I can find a plausible way to get the pair out of exile. I may have painted myself into a plot corner! In addition, I regain the rights to Cairo Mon Amour from my publisher in August 2021, which will give me the option to publish the series as single edition.

All three novels are based on carefully researched historical scenarios, and each includes what I call a ‘moral core’ for want of a better term: Cairo Mon Amour is in part my personal tribute to the resilience of the Armenians in exile; Bury me in Valletta is about the collapse of the relationship between a father and daughter; The Impeccables deals with the far boundaries of betrayal.

But what has surprised me is the development of the relationship between Pierre and Zouzou as its power balance shifts and the couple find new ways to bridge the growing emotional gulf between each another. I never anticipated this when I first put finger to keyboard. This presents another challenge for a possible sequel; are they headed for the divorce courts, or will the balmy tropical climate of Queensland soothe their angst?

But back to Manly. For The Impeccables I installed Pierre and Zouzou in a run-down rented house. It’s in a made-up street called Rialto Close in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The name Rialto harks back to a former cinema in the Corso. The site is now occupied by a small shopping arcade, commemorated by the unglamorous Rialto Lane. My Rialto Close could be in any of half a dozen locations around the town, but wherever it is you might spot a dumped sofa.

Meanwhile, I’ve been honing my skills in book design. Right now, you can get a paperback of Bury me in Valletta through Amazon in the US, but there’s a big freight charge and a long wait for Australian readers. So, I’ve produced an additional paperback version with Ingram Spark, which is now accessible through thousands of bookshops and libraries around the world. I was thrilled to receive the proof copy in November — excellent production values, and the interior all designed by me. I incorporated the lovely cover designed by Rachel Ainge for the ebook. This new print version is now available, and I was delighted to get some US and UK sales immediately after the release date on December 1 2020.

Here’s a great customer review of Bury me in Valletta from a reader in Scotland: ‘Gripping from beginning to the end. Brilliant book and great sequel to Cairo Mon Amour. When is the next book of Pierre Farag, Stuart?’ And for an excellent independent review from IBR, click here.

You can find vendor links for my books here, including for the novella Ash on the Tongue, which is permanently free on Smashwords. The Impeccables will be released some time in 2021.

Walking back to 1978 in Manly’s back lanes

If you look hard enough, lockdown has its upsides. Here in Manly, my daily exercise walk takes me around quaint back streets I’d never normally go to. The glorious beachfront is too crowded for safety, even if the walkers are in singles or pairs as prescribed by the Public Health (COVID-19) Restrictions on Gathering and Movement) Order 2020.

The other upside of being locked down is the extra time I have for writing. After completing my socially isolated morning schedule (news, balcony exercises, daily deep cleaning project, family and work Zoom sessions, walk) I get to spend a fair chunk of the afternoon working on my next novel.

Now, here’s a nice confluence of things: This novel (working title The Impeccables) is set in Manly in 1978, and when I walk the quiet back streets my town looks pretty much as it did in the late seventies when I first lived here.

I have a habit of ‘prewriting’ a lot of my work while I’m walking, so I stroll around the empty lanes immersed in the story, and recalling fragments of life in 1978 Manly that I can weave into the setting. These are some of the things that came back to me yesterday:

  • water beds
  • rented black and white TVs
  • improvised car aerials made from coat hangers bent into the outline of Australia
  • joss sticks
  • KB beer

Yesterday I discovered this ingenious mural* on the back wall of the Salvation Army premises in Kangaroo Lane, and I returned this afternoon to take more photographs of this forgotten corner of my town. I’ve printed the picture in monochrome in sympathy with the fact there were still plenty of black and white TVs in the late seventies. It’ll feature somewhere in the new novel.

Here’s the draft opening of The Impeccables:

Pierre Farag was woken by a thump and a clatter. He took his hand out of the sheets to touch the wall of the tiny ground-floor flat. Their rented home was in a muddle of walk-up brick apartment buildings and the backs of dry cleaners and TV rental shops, four streets away from Manly Beach. The bedroom wall was still warm. It would be this way until March, when autumn released Sydney from the ravaging summer heat. 

He padded out to the front yard. The Sun Herald – the New Year’s Day 1978 edition – lay on the doormat where it had bounced off the flyscreen. The paper van slewed around to serve the other side of Rialto Close, the driver steering with his left arm and lobbing the rolled-up papers into the front yards with his right.

Just give me a year and you’ll be able to read the whole thing!

Last thing: Thanks for all the wonderful feedback I’ve had for Bury me in Valletta. It makes the labour of writing into a pleasure.

*Update: A closer look at the mural shows that is signed by Manly artist Mark Budd and dated 09.

Experimenting with Bookbub ads

Bookbub statistics

I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.

Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.

BookBub ad creative

Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.

There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.

As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.

So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.

And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.

AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.

REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.

VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.

WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.

AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.

Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.

The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.

I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.