Tag Archives: USSR

How I write, or at least how I wrote Cairo Mon Amour

Every author I know tackles writing differently. Some set targets, some write four drafts, some hand-write in green fountain pen on legal pads.

I returned to fiction after thirty years of writing research papers and management reports, and I seem to have carried over the habits of economy and what I call ‘live’ editing into my practice*. That means that I write a single draft, editing back and forth as I go along.

A single draft? Correct. I don’t write 120,000 words and then start cutting from the beginning until I’m down to 80,000. My Word file for Cairo Mon Amour was a living, quivering thing, like a garden in spring. As it spread in all directions, I pruned a branch here, pulled up a stunted shrub there, planted an exotic species here and waited to see what would happen.

The magic ingredient is my weekly writers group at the NSW Writers Centre. I read chapters to my wonderful buddies, soak up the criticism, and go home to revise. I can’t imagine writing any other way.

People ask me “Do you have the whole plot worked out in advance?” Not really. To use another botanical metaphor, I think of the writing process as walking in a forest where I can see a hundred metres in front of me (i.e. about three chapters), but the thick trees conceal what is beyond (the next six chapters). I have a good idea what’s beyond the hill (the ending).

So for me, writing a book like Cairo Mon Amour is really exciting. I start by getting four or five characters established, put them in a jam, and then see what happens next. Often the book starts to write itself: I may think I know what is going to happen, but suddenly another path appears (the forest metaphor again). It’s exhilarating, high-risk, unpredictable.

I never have writer’s block. I just listen to my characters, and they show me where to go. With Cairo Mon Amour, I didn’t know exactly how it would end until I was eighty-percent through. I then wrote the ending and filled in the last twenty percent.

I read a lot of advice about having dedicated writing time, a favourite chair, a routine, meditation. The trouble is that I was an extreme multi-tasker in my professional career, and I can’t kick the habit. My desk is in a room with two doors, that functions as a rat-run between the kitchen and the bedrooms. I write in short bursts between cooking, grandparenting, exercising, and my consulting work. By the time I get to my Mac, I’ll have written the next two thousand words in my head during a walk to Forty Baskets Beach. Then I actually write it down.

Often, an obscure phrase from the past will suddenly generate a whole chunk of text. Years ago in Malta, I was on the track of my hero King Roger II of Sicily (1095-1154). An old churchwarden booted the tourists out of an ornate Baroque church to give me a private tour when I mentioned my quest. “A beautiful church,” I said. “And rich in history,” he solemnly replied. I put the same words into the mouth of the French priest in an unadorned church in a damp village where my characters Pierre and Zouzou ask to be married. “Rich in history,” he says, gesturing at the gaunt rafters. But of course, Pierre and Zouzou’s experience of Egyptian churches is all gold ornament and opulent robes.

I feel a little embarrassed about my confession. Perhaps I should buy a fountain pen.

Or perhaps not.

***

*One of my research specialisations was on the cognitive processes in translation between languages. I developed theories on different modes of processing depending on the difficulty of the task at hand. If you are game, have a look at: Stuart Campbell, Ali Aldahesh, Alya’ Al-Rubai’i, Raymond Chakhachiro, Berta Wakim (2010) “Information structure management and textual competence in translation and interpreting: Sentence openings in translation from Arabic into English as a second language” in Baker, Mona, Olohan, Maeve and Perez, Maria Calzada (Eds.) Text and Context: Essays on Translation and Interpreting in Honour of Ian Mason. Manchester: St Jerome, p.27-58. If I had a spare five years, I’d explore the same phenomena in creative writing.

Advertisements

Pierre, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye in Cairo Mon Amour

 

Cairo Mon Amour introduces Pierre Farag, one of my best-developed characters. In some respects, Pierre is the touchstone of the novel, with its themes of shifting loyalties and the propensity of individuals to adapt to adversity.

I made Pierre half-Armenian and half-Coptic, an Egyptian with an ambiguous identity and a shady profession of private investigator and translator. He’s a man who burrows unnoticed in the folds of the city, among 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’.

He is intensely patriotic, the son of a fighter pilot killed in the 1967 war. But like all certainties in Cairo Mon Amour, his patriotism is tested as the truth becomes clear about the cynical diplomatic plot he has been drawn into.

Pierre prefers the French version of his name, although he is Butrous and Bedros in Arabic and Armenian respectively. He doesn’t explain how the French version came about, and I prefer to leave the secret with him.

Where does Pierre come from? My inspiration was an Armenian man who used to occasionally visit the house of my wife’s relative in Cairo in 1973. He wore a beret and tinted glasses, and seemed studious and thoughtful. It was said that he had spent time in prison during Nasser’s time. He never said much, but he has remained in some corner of my mind for decades. Nobody in the family can remember him, and sometimes I wonder if I imagined him!

 

The music in Cairo Mon Amour

Music in a novel? Well, if Ann Patchett uses it in Bel Canto, then I’m on safe ground. But am I fooling myself when I weave a piece of music around a scene in my novel Cairo Mon Amour? Just because I get an emotional charge as I bash the keyboard, headphones clamped on my ears, is there any way my readers will share my response?

Well, it depends. Picture my exiled Egyptian actress Zouzou, marooned in a flat in damp London. She sings Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly as she passes the hours. My intention is that the impact of the song is subverted: The words are about the pain of a lovelorn woman listening to a singer. But it’s the gloom of exile that is slowly killing her. Of course, everyone knows this song, and I hope that at least some of my readers will hum along.

But what about the Arabic music? Here’s a passage where I give the reader a little help:

But the last record in the stack was Umm Kulthoum’s The Ruins. He put the record on and let the exquisite Classical Arabic stanzas caress his wary heart, almost against his will. The words told of the capriciousness of fate, the powerlessness of the lover’s heart to follow its destiny. The song – the performance was half an hour long – ended on an ambiguous note, somewhere between hope and resignation.

The truth is that while Arabs swoon over the music of this revered singer, most Western readers would just wouldn’t get it. In this case, I hope my description conveys the emotional impact of the song without the reader having to listen to it. But if anyone is curious, the endnotes to the ebook include a link to a YouTube video. In fact, there are YouTube links to all to the music in the book.

The movie Solaris (the original Soviet version, not the US remake) features in the book, and I’ve referenced Tarkovsky’s arrangement of a J.S. Bach choral prelude.* I use the piece of music as an icebreaker between two characters who are thrown together against their will (no spoilers). One begins to hum the melody, and the other recognises it: They discover they have both seen Solaris; there is a point of connection. If Solaris is on your list of top ten movies, you’ll get it. But even if you know only a little about Bach, what I hope is that you’ll think organ+church, and you’ll be half-way there. And there’s a YouTube link!

Happy listening, even if the music is in your head.

***

*BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.