Excerpts from the interview:

‘‘Writing was the only thing I wanted to do, once I figured out it was something that you could do. People make these things, they don’t just fall out of the sky into the library. It is always wonderful to me to be able to create something. The Greek chorus starts when you’re very young. When you’re a certain age people say, ‘Oh, you want to be a creative writer, that’s fantastic. Why don’t you take a creative writing class?’ And then you go to high school, and then college, and you still want to write, and they’re like, ‘We didn’t actually mean it. We thought you were going to be a doctor or a lawyer.’ Or you get the people who are very frank and say, ‘Nobody makes a living as a writer. You have to consider other options.’ My parents, I have to say, were never like that. They would gently suggest that it might be good to have a broad range of possibilities. But I’m one of those people, if you tell me I can’t do something, it makes me more determined to do it.”

*

‘‘Moving to the Middle East was partly an ideal and partly an economic consideration. I had this strange sense that I had not yet found the landscape of my imagination. I wanted to write and I’d always gotten good grades on essays and stuff like that, so I knew I was decent stylistically at putting sentences together, but there weren’t really any stories begging to come out. It was strange for me, being a young aspiring author and not knowing what I was supposed to do, besides stringing sentences together, and yet still having this compulsion to write. When I went to Cairo, within 24 hours I had the bones of the idea of what would become my first book, the graphic novel Cairo, which came out from Vertigo. I’d been dabbling in fiction, but I hadn’t seriously attempted anything like a novel at that point. I’d been writing a lot of non-fiction, which is good for refining ideas. People dismiss the idea of the five-paragraph essay that they teach you in high school – ‘It’s so constraining!’ But it’s not constraining, it’s efficient. If you learn that form first, you can spread out and do other things. But you need the form – it’s like Matisse and Picasso learning figure drawing. They did that first, and then they decided to do something else. The other stuff is not easier.”

*

‘‘I hate using the word ‘memoir’ because I feel too young and inexperienced to have written one of those. I feel like a memoir is something you only get to write after a long, distinguished career in the foreign service, when everybody who could possibly be offended is already dead. But even though I hate the word memoir, that’s what The Butterfly Mosque is. I’d been writing these long e-mails home to a bunch of people over the years while I was living in Cairo, and more than once someone had written back, ‘These are really interesting, you should put them together and make a travelogue or a book.’ I thought that was a good idea, and it would be less work because the writing was already done. So I cobbled together these e-mails and sent it off to a bunch of agents, most of whom said no, and one of whom said yes, Warren Frazier. He’s been my amazing confidante, critic, editor, and hero from that time on. He looked at what I sent and said, ‘There’s a much bigger book in this. Why don’t you work on it and make it something a lot deeper than just a travelogue?’ I said okay, and then I spent the next three years pulling teeth on the stupid thing. That book underwent more drafts than anything else I’ve written in my life.”

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‘‘The beauty of science fiction and fantasy is that the reader can take it on whatever level they’re capable of. The reading can be that multifaceted. If somebody wants to read a story as a metaphor for a political situation, or gay rights, or women in history, or whatever, they can do that. But if they don’t want to read it that way, and it’s a good standalone story, they don’t have to read the deeper meaning into it. If it’s just a screed, then it’s not worth doing. You can have something to say, but if it’s not said by characters who are believable and have worth in and of themselves, it’s almost not worth doing. I don’t like reading stories where the characters are simply mouthpieces for whatever political agenda the writer has. When I was writing Alif the Unseen, all of those characters felt very real to me, and I felt very close to them.”

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‘‘I’m about halfway through writing a new novel, which I’m hoping to finish by the end of the year. It’s in the same universe as Alif, although it takes place about 500 years earlier. There’s one holdover character from Alif. (Given the time period in which it’s set, I bet you can guess which character it is.) The book is set at the very beginning of the age of exploration. With Alif, people asked if I had to do a lot of research, and I said, ‘No.’ It was research I’d been doing for years and never had an opportunity to use. Whereas for this book, I had to find out things like, how many masts did ships have in this period, and in the southern Mediterranean did they have fireplaces, or did they still use braziers? Stuff like that. Thank God for Wikipedia.”