Books·How I Wrote It

Rawi Hage ponders death, war and the nature of mourning in the novel Beirut Hellfire Society

The Montreal-based novelist discusses the creative process behind his latest book.
Rawi Hage is the author of Beirut Hellfire Society. (Babak Salari/Knopf Canada)

In new novel Beirut Hellfire SocietyRawi Hage, the Lebanese-born, Montreal-based author of acclaimed novels De Niro's Game and Cockroach is thinking about the meaning — and meaninglessness — of death. 

Beirut Hellfire Society revolves around Beirut-based Pavlov, a 20-year-old undertaker and his encounter with a secret society that gives proper burials to those denied them for reasons such as being an atheist or being gay. The novel examines what it's like to live through war, what it's like to face death and what it means to feel alive. 

Below, Hage discusses how he wrote Beirut Hellfire Society, which is on the shortlist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the shortlist for the Governor General's Literary Prize for fiction.

Death and dying

"It started with the death of a friend, and thinking about his family and the perpetual and continuous war in the Middle East. Looking at the images in Syria, I was reflecting on the amount of death and casualties in these wars.

"It led me to think about the whole burial process. I've had this black suit that I keep having to wear these past few years, again and again, for so many funerals. This is what triggered this book, this idea of death. You get to a certain age where you are confronted with it in a more quantitative way. A great deal of mourning was also involved in writing this book. Particularly I was remembering people who have passed. But the book isn't about any specific real-life person, rather it's more about the very idea of death."

Words and pictures

"I believe my background as a photographer informs my visual style of writing. I had a period in my life where I watched a lot of films. I was also forced to read and recite Arabic and French poetry growing up. I'm a polyglot — I read in many languages — so there isn't a lot of homogeneity in my writing. 

"Like all of my books, the act of writing is a spontaneous effort. I'm not a person who does a lot of research or planning. Rather, I contemplate on them, sometimes for years. Once I have the courage to start, I sit down and I write them quickly. 

"I write on the computer and think that's corrupted my handwriting. Now whenever I sign books at events, I feel embarrassed by how bad my handwriting is. I blame it on technology."

The absurdity of humanity

"I construct characters based on the experiential, on oral stories that I've heard. But I then transform them, as they are simply the narrative trigger for my stories. Sometimes I hear or experience something and I totally make it as untruthful as possible.

"It's almost like an exercise in the imaginative. It's an exercise in humour as well. I like to view humans and humanity as so absurd."

Rawi Hage's comments have edited for length and clarity.

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