MEET THE AUTHOR
OMAR EL AKKAD – AMERICAN WAR
During the recent Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was delighted to have been invited to meet with the journalist and author Omar El Akkad to talk about his novel American War which is about a second American War Civil War which breaks out in 2074 and how the novel came about, also we talk about his time as a journalist in Afghanistan and if his experiences as a journalist and if this was behind the idea for American War.
I met Omar at the Queens Hotel in Cheltenham just a few hours before his appearance the Literature Festival and I began by asking Omar to give a brief outline to his novel American War.
OEA: American War is about a second American Civil War that takes place five to six decades from now. The America of that time is an America that is a very different place and the sea level has risen by 60 meters, so that means Florida and the Eastern Seaboard is no more. The Capital is now Columbus, Ohio not Washington and that 100 million people have moved inland from coastal areas and the government has imposed a ban on fossil fuels to halt climate change, but with some Southern States going against this what follows is a second Civil War.
What the Story is primarily about us a family called the Chestnuts that love on the edge of the Southern States, and what this does to the family especially Sarat Chestnut and how the war transforms her.
JF: Where did the idea for your novel American War come from?
OEA: The idea came about when I was watching an interview on a news show and they were commenting on protests in Afghanistan about the American involvement and the question was being asked why do the Afghans hate us so much at the time American Special Forces had to carry out night time raids looking for insurgents and they would ransack houses looking for the insurgents while holding women and children at gunpoint and in Afghan culture this is seen as very offensive and so I thought I would transpose what has been happening to people on the other side of the world and bring it close to home.
JF: As a journalist you covered the war in Afghanistan, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt as well as the military trials at Guantanamo Bay and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri did these assignments give you the idea for American War in any way?
OEA: The assignments did not play a role in the idea as a whole, the camps I witnessed clearly play a part in American War but the idea of American War was independent of journalism, but I had the idea to try and impose these exotic motivations on what is a primarily a peaceful part of the world but a lot of the experiences do work their way into the book, but the point of writing it was never related to journalism.
JF: In your novel the main character is Sarat Chestnut who is six-years-old when the war begins in 2074. How did you create the character that is Sarat and was your primary objective for the novel to have a lead character?
OEA: The character Sarat Chestnut arrived very quickly and when the image of the character showed up it changed the book, so when she arrived it predominantly became her story and even now I still think it is her story. While writing American War I lived with this character Sarat for years, I always knew the arc of the narrative going into writing the novel, I knew how it was going to start and I knew how it was going to end which was difficult as Sarat was living with me through the whole process and I knew how it was going to end. The story of Sarat is very much bang, bang but it is really the quiet moments in her story that will stay with me.
JF: As a journalist covering the war in Afghanistan you must have witnessed some appalling scenes, was this a defining moment for you deciding that you wanted to be a full-time writer?
OEA: Fiction was always my first home, I had a story first published when I was in Grade Three and that was it for me. This was what I wanted to do. I do not have a good answer to the question ‘Where are you from’ as I was born in Cairo and grew up in Qatar before moving to Canada and so that fiction tends to be a good home for people like me. Only when I moved to Canada did I realise that you could make a living out of being a writer, so while at college I got involved with the college newspaper and from there to a journalist with a newspaper as a job for the next ten years. I was sent to Afghanistan when I was still relatively young (25). I did think there would be this Hemmingway moment with dodging bullets but this was not the case. It was not the level of danger I was in but the level of privilege I was in, really I was a tourist, I got to go home and I could tell the stories or they would go untold. I had been asking for years to go then after attending training courses run for journalists heading to war zones which were run by former military personnel learning how to handle yourself while bullets and rockets are falling around you I then found out I was heading to Afghanistan.
JF: Did you set out to write an apocalyptic vision of the future for a second American Civil War?
OEA: It had to be in America, it to be in the heart of the empire and currently the heart of the empire is America. I set about writing a book on the universal nature of revenge but it just so happened that three weeks after I finished writing the book Donald Trump announced he was running for president and it has been released at a time when there is very much a dystopian mind-set in America. There are people who think I started to write this book on 9th November 2016. The truth is there was never a vision of what is currently going on in the States. I actually started to write American War in 20014.
JF: Fossils fuels are the reason behind the storyline what was the thinking behind the idea and were you making a statement through the story?
OEA: I was looking at analogies to the first civil war but then also looking at a very rich and commercial country that is America were the use of fossil fuels made some people very rich but at the same time destroyed many others. Many comments said that the second civil war would be fought over race not the environment. It is the idea of stubbornness and because we have always done it this way and that is why we are going to continue doing it this way. This is a mind-set so prevalent in the States and elsewhere.
JF: One the aspects through your novel is the proliferation and use of Drones (The Birds) and what seemed their random use. Was the use of Drones in the book based on experiences in Afghanistan?
OEA: Under the Obama administration they used the term ‘targeted killing’ they would send drones to places such as Libya and try kill specific targets and every now and then they would miss and hit something like a wedding and this is what the military would term as ‘collateral damage’ so the use of drones (the birds) and the random killing of civilians by drones was used in the book and on American people.
JF: With Sarat being turned into an Instrument of war and the terrible acts she commits do you want the reader to have sympathy for Sarat?
OEA: What I wanted more than anything by the time you got to the end of the book not the reader to like Sarat or to apologise for her, but to understand how she got to the place she was, when we about radicalisation or extremism we talk about people being exposed to that. We only get to know about these people at the finish line after they have done whatever horrible thing they are going to do. So by the time you get to the end of the book I don’t want you to like Sarat I just wanted to show the work that went onto creating that kind of person.
JF: We moved on to talking about how Omar went about writing American War and his writing space at home.
OEA: Yes, when I wrote the book we were renting a house in Portland. One of the spare bedrooms became my writing space and the walls were covered in maps redrawn with new borders and also to pin ideas and even sea level measurements to the point of what the coast would look like after increases in sea levels of 1 or two meters and then even higher and then how the map of the United States would then look. There was also source documents that I later used in the book some of these I wrote as the book progressed.
JF: How many draughts of American War did you have to write?
OEA: By the time we went to print we were on draught number twelve, my editor is surgical. Though the finished book is extremely close to the first draught. When my editor first read it then bought it he said it was not perfect but it was special. What followed was just a cleaning up process than say a major change to the narrative. Writing for me is filled with anxiety like it is with many writers. The editing was ten times worse than writing the book. I chose to exclude all technology from the book so there are no smartphones in the narrative on American War.
JF: What would you like the reader to away from American War at the end?
OEA: What I hope is empathy and to understand how people get to a place where they can do horrible things. Bad can be born but evil needs to be created and sometimes these can be really complex and we have an obligation to understand how people get to the place, if we are serious in eradicating these issues. Other than that the reader just reads a story of a character named Sarat Chestnut.
JF: Looking ahead to the future are there plans for you to write a second novel and any plans for you to return to the field as a journalist?
OEA: Is there going to be a next book, well that decision is for others not just me. I have an idea that early last year the research has taken many months. I started writing in January this year then the book tour for American War started and everything went on the back burner. As for the journalism I still do some which includes book reviews and features. My wife and I had our first child a few weeks after the book came out and that has given me a different look at risk. But if I was asked to cover another conflict and if there was an important story to convey I would go as it is the most important form of journalism.
My grateful thanks to Omar El Akkad for taking the time during his short stay in the UK to talk to me about his debut novel American War and also to Emma Finnigan for her grateful help in setting up the interview.
American War is now available in Hardback through Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.