Andrew J Keir’s “Bloody Flies”

by garrycraigpowell

Andrew J Keir’s “episodic novel”, as he calls it, Bloody Flies, was recently published by Matador, just a month or two ahead of my own book, which is also set in the United Arab Emirates. Although we were both living in Abu Dhabi at the same time at one point, I never met him, but we recently became Facebook friends, and I read and enjoyed his work. He graciously agreed to be interviewed by me, and gave some fascinating answers to my questions.

 Garry Craig Powell: As someone who’s lived in the Emirates myself, in fact in Abu Dhabi, like you, I thought as I read Bloody Flies that you’d done a great job of capturing the flavour of life there, particularly from the expat standpoint. The themes of the book include issues of social justice, the adulterous affairs that seem to plague expat society, and the arbitrary nature of authority in the country and region. I wonder if you consciously set out to paint a panorama of life in the Gulf, or was your impetus for writing the book quite different?

Andrew J Keir: When work on the book began, my only intention was to write a few stories from the expat perspective. I felt that all the stories coming out of the Gulf were about Arabs or about super wealth. For me, these did not paint a complete enough picture of the area (Particularly the UAE, where the vast majority of the population are not Arabs). After I’d written a few stories I realised I could create a complete story arc for my dominant western protagonist, Leo Hunter, whilst still dipping into other expat cultures. From that point on I certainly had a “panorama of life in the Gulf” in mind.

Garry Craig Powell: Were you influenced by Hilary Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, or perhaps Geraldine Bedell’s The Gulf Between Us? I think these are the only possible antecedents for your book and mine. And what about fiction on the area by Arab writers? Do you know Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt or perhaps Women of Sand and Myrhh by Hanan Al-Shaykh? If so, I’m curious to know what you think your book adds to the literature.

Andrew J Keir: The Mantel book had been recommended to me, but I didn’t read it at that time. In the beginning I was very conscious of writing universal stories that were set in the Arab world, rather than writing Arab stories. This meant that I consciously steered clear of  Arab themed books for a while.

Later, when I realised I was writing an episodic novel, I was too involved in reading past examples of these, e.g. Cannery Row and Ghostwritten, to shift into Arab mode.

When I think about it, one of my reasons for this is that I wanted Bloody Flies to be an honest reflection of what I saw around me, rather than what others saw around them.

Since I finished Bloody Flies I’ve read the Mantel and a few novels written by Arabic writers and I’ve come to realise that Bloody Flies is a very different animal. In my opinion this is great as it means Bloody Flies looks at the Middle East with fresh eyes and widens our perspective of the Gulf.

Garry Craig Powell: Bloody Flies has been banned in the UAE—not technically, but to all intents and purposes, since the government has not ‘processed’ the book, which means you can’t give readings or promote it. Does that surprise you?

Also, do you think the authorities are more upset by the portrayal of sexual themes in the book, or by some of the characters’ (especially Diana’s) criticism of the conditions of slavery or near-slavery under which some Third World workers and children live there, or perhaps by the portrayal of the authorities themselves, as in the story where Leo has a car accident? Do you think they’ve actually read the book?

Andrew J Keir: The unofficial verdict was given to me verbally through a third party on behalf of someone (At the National Media Council) who had read the book. Who that person was, I don’t actually know; I’m sure he had read the book because the message passed on clearly indicated that the Camel Jockey episodes, and the scene where Leo chats up a Filipino lady, caused them the most difficulty. No mention was made of the car crash episode or the work camp labourers. I should note that even though I was being told I could not sell the book in the UAE or make personal appearances, it was emphasized to me, even at that stage, that the UAE don’t ban books.

Garry Craig Powell: Do you think the banning will affect sales in any way—adversely or positively?

Andrew J Keir: It has greatly reduced my sales in the UAE (My main market) and slightly increased my sales elsewhere.

Garry Craig Powell: I was impressed by the way you humanized your protagonist, Leo, who is not a wholly sympathetic character, by showing us his sympathy for his dying father and his grief and guilt over the death of another family member (I won’t say who, for fear of spoiling the reader’s pleasure). I was particularly struck because the protagonist of Stoning the Devil, Colin, has similar failings to Leo’s, but also genuinely loves his children. Do you think there’s anything about expat life, or life in the Gulf, that impels intelligent, educated people to behave like selfish and querulous teenagers at times?

Andrew J Keir: Money, greed, family, the need to maintain a certain standard of living, being human – all the usual things. I suppose the thing that makes the Gulf different is that rules and laws are applied differently to different ethnic groups, and that westerners and Emiratis enjoy a particularly relaxed version of these rules. They seem to be free to behave badly and to treat the less fortunate with disdain.

Garry Craig Powell: Bloody Flies also shows a character (again I won’t say who, to avoid the spoiler) pursuing a much younger Asian woman—a stereotype of the middle-aged white man in the tropics. Would you agree with me that this part of the novel has elements of comedy as well as pathos?

Andrew J Keir: Yes, but I think that is also true of the whole book. Much has been said about how dark the book is, but I think the darkness is lightened by a sprinkling of black comedy.

I should note, however, that this particular stereotype is alive and well in Abu Dhabi.

Garry Craig Powell: I also admired the way that you made Diana, Leo’s wife, who is also by no means unflawed, genuinely outraged by the treatment of manual workers from the Third World in the camps that Leo manages. She finds him guilty of being complicit with an unfeeling and unjust system. To what extent do you think that western governments and expat workers are responsible for propping up despotic regimes in the region, and unjust social conditions there?

Andrew J Keir: I think individuals tell themselves that the injustices are outside their control. It helps them get through the night … But the unfair distribution of wealth tells another story. Everyone is complicit – it is too easy just to blame the locals.

Garry Craig Powell: Let’s discuss the structure of the book. It’s called a novel, but (again, like my own book) is perhaps more accurately a linked sequence of stories, or novel-in-stories, with characters recurring throughout the sequence. First of all, would you agree with that? And second, what advantages do you see to this form?

Andrew J Keir: I call it an episodic novel, but the other names hold.

I think that the form allows you to see lots of perspectives in multiple single turn narratives, but the advantage over a collection of short stories is a combined synergy which rewards the reader for seeing out the work to the end. The form also allows the writer to layer the work in an unusual way, which brings greater meaning to the overall piece.

Garry Craig Powell: I agree. We hear that publishers want central plots with clear protagonists and antagonists. Did you have any difficulty find a publisher for the novel?

Andrew J Keir: Yes. Bloody Flies is an unusually structured literary first novel – most publishers won’t touch such a beast with the proverbial barge pole. It had to be Indie all the way. Though I must say, Canongate wrote me a very encouraging letter saying that in different economic times they might have taken it.

Garry Craig Powell: That’s impressive. Canongate publish some good writers.

Like me, you studied Creative Writing in graduate school. How valuable did you find that experience in your development as a writer? Do you think Bloody Flies would be very different if you hadn’t studied writing?  

Andrew J Keir: I studied Creative Writing at Lancaster University and Bloody Flies was my MA course project. If I hadn’t completed the course there would be no Bloody Flies. At best there might be a sub-standard spy novel nearing completion.

The support of other creative writers, both students and faculty, is a wonderful thing, and their feedback can only help you improve as a writer. On the negative side however, I feel the course did not help me at all with the difficulties of finding agents and publishers.

Garry Craig Powell: Lastly, do you plan to continue writing about the Gulf, or are you going to explore fresh territory in your next book? Are you already working on something?

Andrew J Keir: My main focus at the moment is a historical novel about Cinaed mac Alpin, the first king of Scotland, and a connected PhD with Edinburgh Napier University. I’m also working on a picture book for the under sixes, called Colin Colour Fingers, with the illustrator Laura Dempsey.

I’ve had enough of the Gulf for now. Writing a banned book is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Garry Craig Powell: Good luck with those projects, Andrew, and thanks for talking to me.


Bloody Flies is available from and elsewhere: