Stoning the Devil – a book about adults losing their innocence

by garrycraigpowell

Here’s the link and complete text of Cara Brookins’ interview with me:

http://carabrookins.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/interview-with-garry-craig-powell/

Cara Brookins: Thanks for talking to me about your first published book, Stoning the Devil, Garry. When did it come out?

Garry Craig Powell: Last Monday, August 20.

Cara Brookins: It’s published by an English house, isn’t it?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes, the incredible Skylight Press.

Cara Brookins: Why did you decide to publish with an English press?

Garry Craig Powell: A lot of American publishing houses came close to taking it; they said the writing was brilliant, but they didn’t think it was commercial enough. They thought the characters weren’t sympathetic, or it was too bleak. So I tried the English publishers, and Skylight picked it up at once. English publishers are bolder than American ones, and Skylight is a particularly bold, imaginative press, bringing out tremendously exciting work. They aren’t publishing formula fiction. They’ve got a stable of innovative, wild poets, novelists and esoteric writers, soon-to-be big names like Kirk Marshall, Chris Hill, Dee Sunshine, and Peregrin Wildoak. Some already famous names too, like Rikki Ducornet and Iain Sinclair.

Cara Brookins: Can you tell us about the genesis of the book? When did you get the idea for it?

Garry Craig Powell: From 1993 to 1998 I taught on the Women’s Campus of the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, and I heard so many astonishing stories, often from the mouths of my students, who were surprisingly open, that I knew I would have to write about them one day.

Cara Brookins: But you didn’t right away?

Garry Craig Powell: No. My first marriage was in ruins for that whole period, and it was all I could do to survive. That’s not quite true. In 1997 I wrote an early draft of “Kamila’s Price,” which ended up in the book, but that first draft was very different from the final version.

Cara Brookins: How so?

Garry Craig Powell: I made the beginner’s mistake of overdoing the melodrama. I had Colin, the Englishman, caught in flagrante with Kamila, the Polish girl, by her pimp—but Colin was penniless, and the pimp, who was Jewish, decides to circumcise Colin with no anesthetic as a punishment. It makes me laugh to think of it now. It ended up considerably more subtle.

Cara Brookins: So you started writing the book about fifteen years ago?

Garry Craig Powell: Not really. When I was in graduate school at the University of Arizona, I did write “Unveiled”, which is also in the book, in close to its present form, but for several years after that I labored on an autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in Spain, which wasn’t very good.

Cara Brookins: When and why did you start writing Stoning the Devil, then?

Garry Craig Powell: It was about 2004. I’d had no success with the Spanish novel, and I’d been meaning for years to write some stories set in the UAE, and suddenly I had the idea of writing a linked sequence. I wanted to have characters recurring in different stories. I already had two, and I found it easy to come up with more.

Cara Brookins: But why the UAE? What attracted you to writing about the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: First of all, it was exotic, intrinsically fascinating, a place of incredible contrasts, desert and camel markets and mud forts and oases on the one hand, night clubs, skyscrapers and sports cars on the other. Second, apart from a couple of good Arab writers—Hanan Al-Shaykh and Abdulrahman Munif—almost no one had written fiction about the Gulf. The only westerner I had come across was Hilary Mantel, who wrote a pretty good novel in the eighties called “Eight Months on Ghazzah Street”. But by 2004 I’d lived in the UAE for eight years, much longer than Mantel, and I thought I understood the people and their customs better. So in a sense there was a sort of ethnographic intent. But the book is much more than a fictionalization of a picturesque way of life.

Cara Brookins: What do you mean? Apart from the romantic setting, what else attracted you to the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: Let’s not underestimate the romantic setting. Lawrence of Arabia was the first film I was deeply moved by, at the age of seven—that’s true of Colin, too, in the book. Images of Lawrence nobly fighting for Arab freedom remained with me for decades. But apart from that, I was shocked when I got there by the vulgarity of the way of the life—the materialism, the hedonism. You find that in all capitalist societies, but it’s particularly evident in the Gulf. And it seemed to me that because of all the wealth, because of the newness of the cities and the ease of access to all sorts of pleasures that Gulf Arabs and western expats have, many, many of them behaved very badly. I noticed how much drunkenness and debauchery there was, how many marriages collapsed—often very nastily too, like mine. I wasn’t judging people. I behaved terribly too, and that was the worst shock of all. I’d always thought of myself as a good person, and here I was, acting in ways I was ashamed of. And I realized that most of the awful people probably thought of themselves as good, decent people, or at least had done so once. So I wanted to explore how they changed. I started writing stories about adults losing their innocence.

Cara Brookins: There’s a lot of sex in the book, isn’t there? Pretty much every story! Why is that?

Garry Craig Powell: It’s because sex is such an important part of human behavior; it’s a reliable barometer of the power dynamics in a relationship. In a region where, on the whole, women are oppressed and repressed, it’s inevitable that men take advantage of them. And I tried to show that that isn’t only true of the Arabs. A lot of the westerners behave in more traditional, macho ways too. It’s as if the conservative culture gives them an excuse.

Cara Brookins: Is that why so much of the sex is kind of nasty? A lot of it is violent, or abusive, or obsessive, isn’t it?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes.

Cara Brookins: Are you saying that sex is always unhealthy in the Middle East?

Garry Craig Powell: Of course not. Remember, I’m not writing a sociological study, this is a work of fiction. I’m just writing about a small group of characters. Fiction writers tend to take more extreme cases, because the average and the unremarkable are not all that interesting. Obviously there are happily married couples in the Middle East, Muslims and westerners and others. But my group of characters are all people who are looking for love in the wrong places, as the cliché goes. Most of them are actually looking for love, too, rather desperately—but end up settling for lust. And through the tangled skein of their relationships, the reader learns a lot about the dynamics of the culture between the different ethnic groups, especially the local Gulf Arabs, the more westernized northern Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine, and the westerners.

Cara Brookins: There isn’t really a single main character or a single plot, is there?

Garry Craig Powell: No, you’re exactly right. There are several plots of almost equal weight. If anything, the Colin-Fayruz plot is the most central. But the other storylines with which it’s interwoven are probably as important. It ended up being more than a linked sequence of stories. I think of it as a novel-in-stories, like Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad or Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It has that kind of scope, that kind of ambition, and I hope, that kind of coherence.

Cara Brookins: Oh, I agree. I think it’s up there with them in quality too.

Garry Craig Powell: Thank you!

Cara Brookins: Stoning the Devil has already attracted high praise from some well-known writers, like Naomi Shihab Nye and George Singleton. You must be very pleased.

Garry Craig Powell: I’m delighted and flattered. Naomi is not only a brilliant writer but one of the noblest, kindest human beings I’ve ever met, and George is certainly the funniest raconteur I’ve come across. I was very honored to get the advance praise from them.

Cara Brookins: Naomi Shihab Nye says that the book is a “mesmerizing read” and adds “Garry Craig Powell has an astonishing ability to create characters with swift and haunting power.” Can you tell us something about those characters?

Garry Craig Powell: At the center there’s Colin, an English professor who used to be an aid worker. He is an Arabist, imagines himself to be progressive, but has some latent racism that he’s unaware of, at least in the beginning. He’s unhappily married to Fayruz, who is a traumatized survivor of the massacres by Christians and Israelis of the Palestinian refugee camps outside Beirut in the early eighties. Fayruz’ brother, Marwan, is a banker, and like Colin, a womanizer. He’s married to Randa, another Palestinian refugee. These are sophisticated, western-educated Arabs. They all traumatized by war, but there’s some dark humor in their relationships, particularly in the Marwan-Randa strand. Then there are other characters connected to Colin: a young Polish girl called Kamila who is down on her luck, and two of his Emirati students at the university, Badria and Alia, who are cousins and best friends, but have a very bizarre relationship. There’s a Sri Lankan masseur called Tyrone—

Cara Brookins: Tyrone! Like the actor Tyrone Power?

Garry Craig Powell: Yes, quite a few Sri Lankans have English names. A famous cricket captain from the country was called Tyrone, in fact. And there are some Emirati men, too: Sultan, Badria’s brother, who gets involved in different ways with Kamila and Alia, and Khalifa, who has a connection to Randa.

Cara Brookins: You said some of the American publishers thought the characters too unsympathetic. Do you think that novels need characters that readers can identify with? Do we have to like them? And which are your favorite characters?

Garry Craig Powell: I don’t think that readers have to like the characters. Look at Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Or Meursault in The Stranger. You wouldn’t want to go out for a beer with either of those guys. But they’re fascinating. Why? Because they’re wrestling with real ethical problems. They might not be as nice as we’d like, but we understand what they want, and when they clash with society, we want them to learn from their mistakes. Flawed characters are more fascinating than anodyne, nice ones. At any rate I will follow a character on a difficult journey as long as I can understand him or her, as long as they are complex, compelling people.

Cara Brookins: You haven’t answered part of my question. Do you like your characters?

Garry Craig Powell: Actually, I do, though not one of them is wholly admirable. I feel I understand them, and as the French say, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner.

Cara Brookins: You can forgive Sultan and his father?

Garry Craig Powell: Maybe not them! Though obviously they have been brutalized—Sultan by his father, and his father, probably, by his own father.

Cara Brookins: Do have favorites?

Garry Craig Powell: I do. I’m especially fond of Randa, who starts out so weak and submissive, but who struggles to find herself and become assertive. I like Badria too. Although she’s manipulative and even cruel, she’s incredibly strong. She’s learned how to survive and even thrive in a hostile environment for women. She reinvents herself, and she’s instrumental in helping Randa reinvent herself too. I must say too that I have great sympathy for Kamila. She may appear weak, and she suffers horribly, but by God, she puts up a fight at the end. And it’s her courage that redeems her, I think. I’m also very fond of Tyrone, the wise, kind, Buddhist man who gives massages to spoilt, rich expats and Arabs.

Cara Brookins: Was he based on a real person? Were all the characters?

Garry Craig Powell: Not all of them, no. Some were based on people I knew quite well—rarely a single person, usually composites of several people—some were based on people I’d heard of or read little snippets about in newspapers, and some were entirely made up. But Tyrone was based on a wonderful man I knew.

Cara Brookins: Did he impart Buddhist wisdom to you on the massage table?

Garry Craig Powell: You may laugh, but he did indeed.

Cara Brookins: Are you Colin? I read a review that said he might be your alter ego.

Garry Craig Powell: That’s the question I dread! Naturally the reader notices some resemblances—English, professor, Cambridge-educated, lived in the UAE—but there are some big differences. I was never an aid worker, I never had an Arab wife (though I’ve heard there’s a rumor at the university that I once had a mail-order Arab wife!), I’ve never taught literature, never slept with a prostitute, or done a lot of the things that Colin does in the book. Nevertheless, of course there’s a lot of me in him, as there is in all my characters. You project parts of your personality into your characters, sometimes the worst, most frightening thoughts and impulses.

Cara Brookins: Sounds scary.

Garry Craig Powell: As Naomi Shihab Nye said, it’s a “journey to the dark side of human behavior.” It has to be. If you just write about happy people having fun, there’s no story.

Cara Brookins: Naomi Shihab Nye also said, “You will not be able to put this book down.”

Garry Craig Powell: I hope she’s right! Burn the midnight oil!

Cara Brookins: And George Singleton, who also said the book is “mesmerizing”—curious that they both use that word—compared your sensibility to “the best Conrad, Kipling, Orwell and Achebe.” Does that comparison frighten you?

Garry Craig Powell: It humbles me. Of course I aspire to be in those ranks—every writer worth his or her salt aspires to be among the best, as John Gardner said. And there’s no question that my themes echo theirs: I’m writing about the problems caused by colonialism, the evils that arise when one group of people tries to dominate or exploit another. But posterity will have to decide whether I belong in such exalted company.

Cara Brookins: There’s no question that Stoning the Devil deserves to be very popular.

Garry Craig Powell: Thank you very much, Cara.

Cara Brookins: And thank you very much for talking to me, Garry. Just one last question: where can readers buy the book? And are you giving readings in this area?

Garry Craig Powell: You can get it from Amazon; $15.99 for the paperback, $7.99 for the e-book. A lot of people have been downloading it! You can also buy it directly from the publisher, Skylight Press, or order it from a bookstore. I’ll be doing a book-signing at Hastings in Conway on September 15, and a meet-the-author event at Faulkner County Library in Conway on September 30. I’m giving a reading at Faulkner County Library on November 1. There will be other events too. Anyone is interested should check out my website, http://garrycraigpowell.com, which has a page for Appearances, or my Facebook fan page, Garry Craig Powell, Writer. Just “like” it, and you’ll get the update.

Cara Brookins: Thanks again, Garry.

Garry Craig Powell: Shukran, Cara.