My new book Street of Storytellers, published this fall by Rootstock Publishing, is a suspense novel set in Christmas week 1984 in Peshawar, the age-old crossroads city by the Khyber Pass in Pakistan’s legendary North West Frontier Province. As the story makes more and more clear, this was a critical place, and a critical time, in modern world history.
What is the story behind your book?
That’s a story in itself!
After I graduated college in 1974, I spent half a year painting houses and then traveled from England to Pakistan, India and Nepal by train and bus. I was very struck by the dramatic drive down the arid, dangerous Khyber Pass into the Peshawar Valley, which is the green gateway to the Indian subcontinent. After six months, I came home — but I wanted to go back, and I wanted to write about it.
I went to work as a reporter, then an editor, for a group of weekly newspapers in New Jersey, where I’d grown up. Then in 1979 a group of Iranian students invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran. They kidnapped 52 Americans who worked there, and held them hostage for 444 days. This was the first big crisis between my country and the Muslim world — and it struck me that neither side seemed to really know much about the other.
So I left my job, took a backpack and a portable typewriter, and traveled from the Arabian coast to Pakistan by ship, then by train up to Peshawar. I wanted to write a nonfiction “journey story” about the people I met and the experiences I had, trying to understand.
In Peshawar I explored the Old City and made friends with a group of young men in one very ancient neighborhood, or bazaar. I wrote down every conversation and observation, and kept maps, newspaper clippings and more. I then traveled farther north in India, and wound up teaching English in Kathmandu, Nepal. I wrote a nonfiction book about my experiences in Muslim Asia, but nobody would publish it! My original book was rejected 75 times.
Eventually I put that book away, and started to write fiction for middle schoolers and young adults. I wrote a number of books for the Choose Your Own Aventure series, then produced several realistic novels — one of which, The Revealers, has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 U.S. schools.
But I kept all my material from Peshawar, and I never forgot that time and place. After 9/11, it became clear that the Al Qaeda movement, which brought down the World Trade Center, had originated in Peshawar in the 1980s. And I began to think about a YA novel, a sort of thriller set there and then.
Street of Storytellers centers on four teenage characters:
• Luke, the narrator, an American who is angry that he’s been brought here over his holiday vacation by his dad, a professor of ancient history;
• Yusuf, a waiter in Luke’s hotel, who with his family has fled the terrible violence in next-door Afghanistan, a nation in revolt against its occupiers, the Soviet Union;
• Danisha, the daughter of a local history professor, who has taken some big risks in joining a women’s resistance to the rise of religious extremism in her community; and
• Rasheed, Dani’s older brother, who has joined a new group of young, would-be holy warriors who hope to join the fight against the Soviets. They’re led by a wealthy man, recently arrived from Saudi Arabia, named Osama bin Laden.
What happens to these four, and the choices they find they must make, raises striking parallels to our own place and time — another critical time in world history.
What inspires your creativity?
Mostly, I think, people and my conversations with them.
How do you deal with creative block?
First, if you want to get a writing project done, set a time in your day when you can work on it — then keep that appointment, every day you possibly can. I like to work on a book project first thing in the morning, before my day and my brain gets cluttered with other stuff (like writing to make a living). Even if you can only carve out an hour for your writing, keep that appointment with yourself. Don’t check email, don’t go on social media, don’t answer the phone.
Second — and this is really key — give yourself permission to write a really terrible first draft! People get stuck because they think what they want to write has to come out great, even perfect, the first time. But it never does, and it never will. Writing is always a process. So tell yourself, “I’m just going to set down some junk, for now. It’s okay, I’ll come back to it.” That gives you permission to be creative, to try things. And you will come back to it, again and again.
Understanding that writing, in fact any creative work, is always a process — not a judgment on you and your talents or abilities — frees you up to produce good work. Often I’ve discovered that what I thought was pure junk, writing the first draft, turned out to be pretty decent — while what I thought was probably brilliant was nothing close. Either way, you keep coming back and working with it. It’s a process.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Well, every writer is different, and every project is also different — but I think a big mistake people often make is that they talk about the book they want to write instead of setting up a daily schedule and just working on it. I generally don’t talk at all about a project while I’m in the midst of it. The process is internal and intimate. Talking about what you want to write, or what you’re trying to write, tends to dissipate the creative energy that you can bring to bear on writing the thing.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
If you get a book accepted by a traditional publisher, you’ll have little to no input on the cover — and you may well be told to come up with a different title. Obviously there’s no perfect title, or set of rules for titles that everyone follows. But since a title’s whole job is to engage a potential reader in picking up and opening your book, it’s a good idea to try title ideas on some people. How do they respond? What do they think, from hearing the title, that the book is about? Does the title make them want to find out more?
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
I’ve had all kinds of reviews, and I think the most important thing to realize is that you can’t control what critics will say or write — and you most definitely should never respond. This is true as well of social-media reviews — Customer Reviews on Amazon, reader reviews on Goodreads, and the like. Don’t try to contact a reviewer, don’t post a rebuttal, don’t correct misstatements … just let it be. Far greater writers than us have had horrible reviews of books that turned out to be classics. We remember the book. No one remembers the review.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I know now that there will always be fear, especially when you face the blank page or screen. I’ve learned, in fact, that the more scared I feel, the more I should be doing just this — because that fear means I’m trying something challenging, I’m pushing past my comfort zone. So fear, here, is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t stop you. Just, instead, note it, know that it’s a good sign — and push forward.
In terms of the process itself, before starting the first draft of a book I’ve learned to spend a fair amount of time developing my relationship with and understanding of the central characters. Who are they, what’s going on with them, how do they feel about things? I never try to map out a story; I focus on the characters and on how the story, the novel, will start. I think of that as getting the airplane off the ground: It’s a big lift! But once the plane is in the air, it generates its own momentum. One morning after another, I come to the draft and push it forward. Sometimes I have a good sense of what’s going to happen next, sometimes I have no clue. Either way is fine — I just keep coming to it.
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I like the idea that you should write the book you would most like to read — but also that you should write the book only you should write. It’s a dynamic balance, and it should be. When I give creative-writing workshops in schools, I often describe the drafting phase as tapping into child mind. You’re playing around, and you’ll probably make a big mess, but you’re trying out your ideas and exploring what could happen. Kid mind is very open and creative, but also very self-focused — you’re in your own flow.
Then, next, approach the revising and rewriting phase with your grownup mind. That means you’ll work the project over and over, until it’s as good as it can be — and you ask for honest feedback, you check facts and spellings, you pay attention to details. Throughout this phase, focus on the reader. Don’t make your reader untangle your sentences, or puzzle out what’s happening. Solve all those challenges for your reader, and make the work as good as you can make it — for the reader. And, ultimately, for you as well.
Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.
First, I’m six feet ten inches tall. Yes I am!
Second, along with being a fulltime freelance writer, I’m a working musician. I play right now in three bands, in Vermont’s Champlain Valley. I play conga drums, harmonica, and percussion. And I almost never sing.