Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Why Omar El Akkad deleted his entire novel once — then scrambled to save it

The author of American War, a finalist for the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, answers eight questions from eight writers.
Omar El Akkad's dystopian novel American War was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. (The Mcdermid Agency)

Omar El Akkad is an award-winning journalist who has covered the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in Egypt and Black Lives Matter in the U.S. His debut novel American Warwhich draws heavily from these experiences, was on the shortlist for the 2017 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

American War will be defended by Tahmoh Penikett on Canada Reads 2018.

Below, El Akkad takes on the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight randomly selected questions from eight fellow authors. 

1. Durga Chew-Bose asks, "If you were to dedicate your next book to a fictional character, who and why?"

Mercedes from Pan's Labyrinth. For reasons I can't quite explain, she's the character I associate most with resistance in the face of overwhelming evil. I think everyone carries around with them some wildly unrealistic ideal of how they wish they'd behave under impossible circumstances. She's mine.

2. Karen Solie asks, "What do you do for fun? If you think writing is fun, what else do you do?"

I climb rocks. My subgenre of choice is bouldering, which requires no gear other than a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. I'm usually happiest when I'm alone and putting distance between myself and the noise of the world — rock climbing is good for that sort of thing.

3. Hoa Nguyen asks, "What is your favourite piece of music?"

La Takzibi (Don't Lie). It's an Egyptian song, originally a poem written by a jilted lover. There exist countless versions, including a 30-minute rendition by Abdel Halim Hafez featuring a full orchestra and an audience so boisterous they render the whole performance interactive.

But my favourite is by Mohammed Abdul Wahab (who belongs, along with Hafez and Umm Kalthoum, to the holy trinity of Egyptian music's golden age). It's just the artist and his oud, 13 minutes of lyrical and musical perfection. It's the most moving song I've ever heard; even its silences are crushing. 

4. Emil Sher asks, "What three words would you use to describe what makes a great story great?"

Read it, changed.

5. Vincent Lam asks, "At some point in the writing of a book, have you ever had a real low point? What did you hold on to in order to get out of that place?"

A few years ago, when I was about halfway through the first draft of American War, I woke up one night and went to my computer and deleted the whole manuscript. Not only did I feel the story was of no merit whatsoever, I was furious with myself for having started it in the first place.

After I deleted the file I left the house and took a long walk from the southeast side of Portland down to the river that splits the city in half. I sat on the edge of the boardwalk and watched the red blinking lights atop the bridges and I realized that the act of writing might be, for me, inseparable from anxiety and frustration and debilitating self doubt. But the act of not writing is emptiness. I can stand anything but emptiness. I walked back home and retrieved an old backup of the story and got back to work. I lost two chapters of work that night. But I finished the novel.

6. Ausma Zehanat Khan asks, "At what point in your career do you believe you will have accomplished what you set out to do as a writer? How will you know?"

I come from a long line of malfunctioning hearts. My father died young of a heart attack, and so did his father. So I tend to work on the assumption that I'll run out of time before I run out of ink. What I set out to do as a writer is write what I feel is necessary, which is a function of content rather than time.

I wrote three novels before American War, but none of them felt necessary, so I never tried to publish them. I suspect that if I reach a place where my work doesn't feel necessary to me again, I'll just go back to writing for myself. Not everything needs to find room on a bookstore shelf.

7. Greg Hollingshead asks, "Name three Canadian writers you believe should be more widely read than they are. Why?"

Moez Surani is, I think, one of the finest poets of his generation, and is the first writer I remember meeting in person whose talent seemed overwhelming. Sharon Bala is a tremendous short story writer whose ability is matched by her willingness to tackle difficult questions about what it means to be Canadian.

Recently I was lucky enough to read her upcoming novel and it blew me away with its precision and empathy. Benjamin Hertwig is a young poet whose collection Slow War should be getting much more attention. I know it's hypocritical of me to say I don't like books about war, but Hertwig's work is an exception. It's emotionally honest in a way only the best war stories are.

8. Kate Cayley asks, "Are you hopeful?"

Yeah, but sometimes my writing isn't.


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