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Friday, June 08, 2007

Q & A with Author, Diana Abu-Jaber

Diana Abu-Jaber’s first mystery novel, Origin flows so smoothly, that the reading experience feels almost stream of conscious. The tightly woven narrative, rich character development and lyrical descriptions make the novel a compelling and enjoyable read.

The novel’s main character, Lena, lives in a world of tangibles. She is a fingerprint analyst for the local police department and believes in what she can perceive through her senses. She also believes that she knows the story and nature of her origins. During the course of the novel, we discover, along with Lena, just how flexible or even misleading the stories, that help make us who we are, can be.

It is a tightly woven mystery novel; the writing is so well done, that the book is a moment by moment experience. The revelations, that occur as the mystery is solved, are a bonus to reading the book rather than the driving element.

Below, you will find a few questions, that I posed via email, to the author and her wonderfully fresh answers. Enjoy, and I recommend that you read the book! It will be available for purchase this month, starting June 25.

Q: Your previous novels are literary fiction did you intentionally choose to write Origin as a mystery or did the story evolve that way?

DA: About five years ago, I woke up one morning with the voice of this stranger woman in my head. Her name was Lena and I knew that she had this very bizarre memory of her past. I realized very early on, as I began writing her tale, that her origins were a disturbing mystery to her and that the novel itself would need to be written as a mystery story. It was very much a natural evolution to begin with the character’s own personal enigma and then to realize that someone with such a murky past would be drawn to a life of solving mysteries.

Q: How long did it take you to write?

DA: From the very beginning to the very end, it took four years. I’m slow but eventually I get there.

Q: I'm not a fan of the mystery genre. I'm the person that skips ahead to get the answers. Then, I go back and read the build-up if it's well written, yet the way you write allows the reader to remain in the moment with Lena. The reader is so involved in unfolding events that they forget that there are unanswered questions until the next truth is revealed. How would you describe your writing style?

DA: Thank you, I love that depiction! I really do think of myself as a literary novelist first; but I also have a great deal of respect for and interest in so-called “genre writing” like mysteries and thrillers. I’m fascinated by the idea of taking the sharp, suspenseful story lines of genre books and trying to intermingle them with the rich prose and depth of character that you find in more traditional literary novels. It’s something I’m intrigued with.

Q: What is your approach to writing? Is it very organized, as in scheduled periods for writing and daily word goals, or do you take a more organic approach?

DA: “Organic” is such a nice way of putting it! Yes, I am very organic. A little too organic, probably. I absolutely love and revere the idea of having scheduled writing periods and I think not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and think: okay, today you really should sit down from X until Y o’clock and just write.

Unfortunately, the reality is more like I get up, hang around eating breakfast and yakking with my husband, email a bunch of friends, take the doggie for a walk, yak with the neighbors, go out for lunch, look at the news about Paris Hilton online, fool around with email some more, phone a bunch of friends, ogle some cookbooks….And somewhere in there—maybe at midnight—I somehow get a page or so written. I’ve tried so hard to change this so-called process of mine, really I have, but so far to no avail….

Q: Your previous novels deal with how a person's origins, family/cultural background, specifically those of Arab-Americans, affect their daily lives and future prospects. In Origin, the lead character, Lena believes that she knows where she comes from only to discover that her story begins differently. Her quest for answers and order are externally focused--on her mother, her soon-to-be ex-husband, the tactile and information driven nature of her job as a fingerprint analyst. Her ethnicity is unclear. She appears to have no religious affiliation but she comes across as distinctly spiritual. Why did you choose to make her this ethnically ambiguous almost psychologically and socially amorphous character?

DA: As you say, in the past my novels have focused on a more clearly defined ethnicity and identity. But I’ve gotten increasingly interested in finding ways to expand the range of my subjects and creative “terrain.” Lena’s situation, in many ways, mirrors my own sense of ambiguity and perplexity over identity—not only cultural but spiritual, creature, personal—all the intricate ways we try to become who we are. In Origin, I really wanted to look more closely at the question of how people create a sense of self, rather than at the specific cultures or areas that “self” might arise from. I think of this search as uniquely American on so many levels—it really doesn’t matter all that much, in the end, when we came from, as where we’re going, where we end up, the “home” that we’re trying to find or to make.

Q: I love the way you use the climate of Syracuse to reflect the emergence of Lena from a state of immobility to one of increasing action. She goes from a deep freeze to an unexpected thaw full of energy and possibilities. Do you consider her journey one specific to women, distinctly feminine in nature, or would you say that her story is one of human process--becoming a complete person?

DA: Beautifully put! And I like both the possibilities you offer here. I do think that the journey to completion has special significance for women. We’re often raised to focus on caring for others, pleasing friends and families instead of tending to our own personal growth. It’s that age-old struggle to push out of a place of social subjugation.

By the same token, I do think that both men and women alike have to embark on journeys of personal discovery and becoming. There are always going to be lots of people out there who believe they know the answers and are more than happy to tell us what to do with our lives. Certainly, Lena is surrounded by such “helpful” advisors in Origin—most of whom turn out to be very unhappy or half-mad! She actually tries to take “human being lessons” because she’s so confused about her path in life. The trick for Lena, for anyone, is learning to stay brave and intrepid, to not back down from challenges or from taking imaginative risks. And that’s one of the traits I really value in Lena—the willingness to risk being different or looking foolish in order to get what she wants—whether it’s solving a mystery or finding her own true purpose in life.

Q: What advice would you give the aspiring novelist?

DA: I’d love to tell aspiring novelists to write every day for a certain number of hours or pages. But that’s not what I do, so I can’t, in all honesty, advise it. Instead, I think I’d say to try to be brave and to make sure you speak your personal truth when you write – even if you’re scared and you think it will upset people. Write it anyway. As Audre Lord said, your silence will not protect you. So be present when you write and your work will reward you a hundred times over.

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