I'll be out of town for the rest of the week so please enjoy this early interview! I'll be back on Monday.
Today I chat with the author of the new novel The Last War, a story inspired by some true events from her life. She's also the author of the novel Loving Che and the short story collection In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and the title story of which won a Pushcart Prize. She has worked as a journalist in the United States and abroad, including the last three years as a prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. As a reporter, she has written about Cuba, Kashmir, Afghanistan, and India, where she was based for three years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Republic, The New York Times, and Gourmet magazine. She just returned from teaching at The American University in Cairo, Egypt, as a 2008-09 Fulbright Scholar.
Which stories are you proudest of as a journalist/columnist?
It's tough to narrow it down. I put so much into every column that I'm happy with all of them for different reasons. But if I had to pick one story, it would be the series of columns I did on the janitor strike at the University of Miami that eventually led to benefits and better working conditions for some of the lowest paid people on the Coral Gables campus.
Do you go about writing fiction differently than you do nonfiction/journalism?
Yes. Journalism doesn't give you a lot of time to revise or worry about craft. With fiction you have much more time (almost unlimited, really) to make sure it sounds exactly as you want it to sound.
Why did you title The Last War as such? What other titles did you consider?
I like the double entendre, the last war meaning the previous war and also the final one. One of my earliest choices was The Gate of Happiness, which is one of the ancient names for Istanbul. Everyone thought it was too obscure.
What are your favorite books or films set in wartime?
It would definitely have to be Casablanca, which is why I was so pleased when O Magazine compared it to that incomparable film.
Of the war zones you've been to, which would you return to in peacetime if you could?
Afghanistan. It's an amazing country.
If you had to be exiled somewhere, where would it be?
Istanbul or somewhere close on the Black Sea like Ovid...
How did you like Egypt? Did you feel it was impossible to escape your Americanism there? When I was there it felt like I was treated like a fancy alien with a lot of money.
I loved Egypt. And my Americanism was rarely an issue - probably because I look Middle Eastern. I felt very at home.
What do you think you got out of NYU that you might not have gotten from another writing program?
Lifelong friends and a community of serious writers. Going to the NYU MFA program was probably the best decision I've ever made in my life.
I read in an older interview of yours that "I try to write from about 9 a.m. to 1 p.m" If this is still your routine (or something like that), what do you do when you sit down for that time and nothing is coming to you?
That routine is really a luxury. I haven't been able to stick to it since I stopped being a student. When I was working as a columnist for the Miami Herald, I ended up doing most of my writing at night (after I filed) or on the weekend. If nothing comes to me, I write anyway. I write about how nothing's coming and try to explore that, maybe dream of a character to whom nothing happens.