For the final interview in our series on International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlistees, Amira Abd El Khalek talks to Ahmed Mourad about his editing process, why comparing a book to a film version is like comparing poetry to swimming, and how — if he were going to switch genres — he might like to write a romance.
Amira Abd El Khalek: What inspired you to take the leap and write your first book?
Ahmed Mourad: It was an accumulation of everything I had read and issues going on in society at large that compelled me to write. Ideas that were worth writing about were starting to connect and needed to come out to the world. I also studied cinema and felt that I see things through a different perspective, perhaps more dramatically, so I felt I wanted to write to be able to express this in the form of a novel.
AAK: Were there particular books that inspired you? What novels do you particularly enjoy? Are there novels that you feel have influenced your work?
AM: I don’t have a certain preference. I enjoy reading in general and I have been reading from a very early age, but I particularly enjoy books written by the older generation. Naguib Mahfouz is possibly the most influential author in my life. Then there are history books. I love history books. Also, the works of Mustafa Mahmoud, Youssef Idris, and the classics in general. All these have influenced me as an individual and have inspired my writing.
AAK: Why do you think relatively few Egyptian writers are writing thrillers?
AM: I believe it’s because it’s a new genre of writing and anything new is usually accompanied by a lot of attack and criticism. However, it is not really new because Naguib Mahfouz wrote The Thief and the Dogs decades ago. In any case, the thriller, in its dry sense, is more of a crime novel, i.e. it addresses questions like who killed? Where did they find the knife? Where were the jewels hidden? That sort of thing. I don’t write like that. I believe that the social burden that develops within the novel is much more important than the crime itself; the crime is more of a trigger for the novel. Maybe that is why it did not appeal to writers.
I like the element of thrill and suspense in a novel but it is not the essence. The crime is the trigger of the story, but I don’t care who committed the crime or what the punishment is going to be. The thrill for me is the framework, the essence is the human drama, the transformation of the hero, the dissection of society into different levels and peering into these levels to better understand them.
Also, a plot that has a crime is difficult for some writers. They consider it quite complex. I like the element of thrill and suspense in a novel but it is not the essence. The crime is the trigger of the story, but I don’t care who committed the crime or what the punishment is going to be. The thrill for me is the framework, the essence is the human drama, the transformation of the hero, the dissection of society into different levels and peering into these levels to better understand them.
AAK: Some have said that your novels signal a change in the path of the Arabic novel. Do you see this?
AM: It is very difficult for me to judge my own works, but what makes me happy is that a lot of people who did not previously read started to read because they found in my novels something that touches them some way or another. I try to write in a language that is accessible to people. More people have gotten together to discuss the novels and there is a general hunger towards literature which makes me very happy.
Do I add something new? Do I contribute to the development of the novel or to literature? I believe that we all, as writers, do and we all contribute some little thing to the construction of the novel. I am not alone and I cannot judge now whether or not changed has happened. This will be evident in the future and judgment will be that of history and the public, not mine.
AAK: What makes your books best-sellers?
I get bored very quickly. I often have to force myself to sit and read a novel to the end or watch a film till the end. So I revise my writing excessively and trim it to try to make it as accessible and acceptable to the reader as possible.
AM: I am a tough reader. I’ve been reading since I was 5 years old. I like to filter my books. I get bored very quickly. I often have to force myself to sit and read a novel to the end or watch a film till the end. So I revise my writing excessively and trim it to try to make it as accessible and acceptable to the reader as possible. I try as much as possible not to lose the rhythm. I try to be accurate with my facts and honest with the emotions I portray and I choose a historical facts and characters that are close to the reader. I make the effort to connect my writing to the reader. I don’t write for critics or for a prize, I write for the reader and since I am interested in the readers then in turn, I will believe I will receive the same sort of interest from them.
I don’t write for critics or for a prize, I write for the reader and since I am interested in the readers then in turn, I will believe I will receive the same sort of interest from them.
AAK: Why do you think audiences connect with your books so viscerally?
AM: I believe language has a big role to play. Some writers write in a lofty language or spend a lot of time refining their language for the sake of one prize or another and they tend to forget about the reader. first and foremost we write for readers and that is usually my drive. I try to connect to them in terms of topics that interest them, in a language that is accessible to them, and I try to portray my characters in a way that will affect my readers directly. I imagine that is what also makes them connect with my books.
AAK: What, for you, has been the hardest part of writing novels?
Facing the reader with what I have written is hard. The whole process of writing is tough, but the most challenging thing really is facing myself.
AM: Writing a novel is a very difficult process. Knowing that there is a commitment of two years is huge. The research is very hard. A daily challenge I have is not to feel bored from what I write, but despite its difficulty, it is also a pleasure. Facing the characters, seeing whether or not I have portrayed them as honestly and as deeply as I could, the dialogue, the finishing of the novel itself and the final outcome to bring it out in the image that I originally wanted. Facing the reader with what I have written is hard. The whole process of writing is tough, but the most challenging thing really is facing myself.
AAK: Do you work with an outline or do you prefer just see where your ideas take you?
Writing is like travelling. I know I’m going to Alexandria, for example, I know that Alexandria is about 220 kilometers away from Cairo and I know the way and I’m on it and moving in a relatively straight line. However, that doesn’t mean that I can see the entrance to Alexandria from where I am.
AM: Writing is like travelling. I know I’m going to Alexandria, for example, I know that Alexandria is about 220 kilometers away from Cairo and I know the way and I’m on it and moving in a relatively straight line. However, that doesn’t mean that I can see the entrance to Alexandria from where I am. What I do is I write the whole story on four pages, but as I go along there are surprises and developments that emerge and sometimes I discover I wasn’t really going in the right direction, so I write but I know that every 100 meters for instance, I pause and check whether or not I’m still travelling on the right path. In the end I reach my destination but what happens along the way is usually subject to changes, sometimes major, and that even surprises me as I work.
AAK: Do you seek advice from any other writers in the editing process? Or do you do all your editing yourself?
AM: I go through levels of reading. The first level is that of the general reader, the reader who likes to read for pleasure. I give the text to my mother, my sister, my wife and two or three friends I trust. Then there is a higher level, people who have experience in writing: one or two friends who are writers. Then I move on to a higher level, some of the more established writers, such as Mr. Sonallah Ibrahim for example, because they have a broader perspective and see things in a much better light.
Then I ask other experts to look at the text from their own experiences, like Marwan Hamed for instance, who looks at it from a dramatic point of view in terms of character portrayal, rhythm, and music and whether a specific scene is appropriately set or seems logical. There is also a historical revision, especially with 1919. I have to ensure that the historical facts are accurate. In 1919 also, I asked a friend who speaks the Syrian dialect fluently to review the language structure used by one of my characters. So each reader provides me with some sort of feedback which I am very grateful for.
AAK: If you were not writing thrillers, what else would you be writing?
AM: I would be writing romance novels. I am not very romantic, so I would like to explore that by writing romantic novels.
AAK: Of your four novels, which was the most difficult to write?
AM: Each one of my novels has some sort of difficulty, especially that as I progress in terms of experience some new level of difficulty arises. It’s a bit like childbirth, the mother usually remembers the pains of the latest birth, rather than all the previous ones, but actually they all have some sort of challenge. With Vertigo it was facing the difficulty of writing itself that was difficult. With Diamond Dust, the difficulty was accepting whether I actually do write, or whether the success of the first novel was a stroke of luck. It was a challenge of maintaining that success or failing completely. To me, it was a matter of being or not being. The Blue Elephant had a different challenge, that of being held accountable to my readers as I write more in the trend of thrillers. The challenge of writing a historical novel with 1919 was a totally new level of difficulty.
AAK: What do you think about the English and Italian translations of your books? What relationship do you have to the translations? Do they feel like “yours”?
With translations, it never feels a hundred percent the same way as it does with the original Arabic novels, mainly because there is a transfer of ideas into another language and dialect and often with expressions that are more appropriate to that other culture.
AM: With translations, it never feels a hundred percent the same way as it does with the original Arabic novels, mainly because there is a transfer of ideas into another language and dialect and often with expressions that are more appropriate to that other culture. However, this is the only way that other readers will have access to our works. I do feel that the translations do not fully depict what I wanted to say in Arabic, and I don’t know what the impact is on the English and Italian readers, though the reviews I received from Italy are very positive. The translators though exert a huge effort in translating the work and I believe I was quite lucky with my books because both translators, whether English or Italian, have a lot of experience and from what I read from the English, it was very fair in its depiction.
AAK: Does it make you nervous to turn your novels into movies and TV shows? What is the relationship between the novel and the visual media?
AM: It does not make me nervous because I am already a part of this formula. We all get nervous, but the thing is if I let it get to me then I would never write. Nervousness to me has become a friend. My greatest challenge was to write, anything else I consider to be exciting. I took a decision to write the screenplay of The Blue Elephant. I did not write Vertigo. It was an experience that some people liked and others didn’t at all, but it received a lot of success worldwide. It was very successful for people who had not read the novel, and the audience who watches is usually much larger than that who reads. The Blue Elephant is going to be a different experience for the Arab World, and I truly hope people will like the formula we have set. So of course any new experience is accompanied by some nervousness but we have to try to overcome it and learn from its outcome.
One of the common mistakes we have is considering the transformation of a novel into a television series or film as an extension, i.e. more or less a replica. I believe it is unfair to compare a novel to a film because each genre has its own tools.
One of the common mistakes we have is considering the transformation of a novel into a television series or film as an extension, i.e. more or less a replica. I believe it is unfair to compare a novel to a film because each genre has its own tools. I can’t talk about a text written in a certain language that requires people to imagine and compare it to a medium that has music, editing, and a director’s perspective. It’s like comparing poetry to swimming. So when a novel is turned into a film, it is more of a depiction. There should be a considerable level of freedom in the filmmaker’s own perspective. There should be freedom in doing certain in a way that will affect and influence the audience of that particular medium and both media should be respected in their own right.
AAK: Some of Vertigo’s readers did not like the transition of Ahmed Kamal’s role in the novel to Farida in the TV series. What did you think about it?
AM: The series is ‘based on’ the novel. It is not the novel. This was decided upon from the very beginning. The producer said he had a certain formula that he wanted to carry out and we had already signed the contract. He did ask me to do it but I refused because I felt that I did not have the ability to portray it since I would not be presenting anything new. I also felt that readers would not forgive me for doing this transition. Another screenwriter managed it and took the main outline of the novel and turned it into a television work that is ‘based on’ my novel.
This is a technique that is followed in other countries though in Egypt there isn’t much appeal for it, which I feel explains why readers did not like it. But for those who watched it and had not read the novel, and I presume that’s about 95% of the audience, they liked it. On the other hand, if after watching the series some of those would think of going to read the novel, then this in itself will have served the novel.
AAK: In your latest novel, The Blue Elephant, you addressed a psychological disorder. How did you prepare for it? Did you do research?
AM: When I write any novel I immerse myself totally into the world that I am writing about. So I went to Abbasia Hospital through a friend of mine who is a doctor there. He helped me gain access to the ward where patients who have committed the most heinous crimes are held. I attended about eight sessions as they took place at the hospital. I also got the manual of psychiatric disorders and studied it as if I were a psychiatrist in order to fully understand the different disorders. For two years I befriended the doctors at the hospital and was able to frequent it any time. It took a lot of research from me until I was able to fully grasp the situation I wanted to portray.
AAK: Do you have any advice to emerging Arab authors?
AM: If you want to be a writer, just write. Emerging writers usually find excuses or distractions because they’re afraid of starting the actual process of writing. You should have a routine of four to five hours a day that you set aside for writing. Focus, discard the world outside, and forget about social media. Sit and write, or type, and only get up when you’ve written something, even if it is just one sentence. Naguib Mahfouz said, force the muse to come to you when you are writing, at the times you have specified, and don’t wait for it to find you when it wants to.
Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.
The other five shortlisted novelists: