Interview with author Lilas Taha about her new novel “Shadows of Damascus”

15Jan14

Shadows_of_Damascus_final

One thing about us aspiring writers: we like to band together and complain incessantly about the misery inflicted on us by the publishing industry. Lilas Taha and I have suffered much misery and complained a LOT over the past couple of years. Despite the fact that Lilas and I are political and religious opposites, we’re bonded by our shared hatred of book agents and our passion for writing.

Just kidding about the book agents. Lilas doesn’t hate agents. I don’t…exactly…hate agents either. Really.

After years of trying and failing to catch an agent’s or publisher’s interest, I got lucky and found Tactical16 in 2012. I’ve finally (I hope) begun my climb out of the Frustrated Anonymous Aspiring Writer pit. And as of yesterday, Lilas is working her way out of the pit as well.

Lilas Taha

Lilas’ new novel, Shadows of Damascus, was just released yesterday. It’s technically a romance, but it’s also a rich, deep story that will appeal even to knuckle-dragging’ military guys like me.

Here’s the book summary:

Bullet wounds, torture and oppression aren’t the only things that keep a man—or a woman—from being whole.

Debt. Honor. Pain. Solitude. These are things wounded war veteran Adam Wegener knows all about. Love—now, that he is not good at, not when love equals a closed fist, burns, and suicide attempts. But Adam is one who keeps his word. He owes the man who saved his life in Iraq. And he doesn’t question the measure of the debt, even when it is in the form of an emotionally distant, beautiful woman.

Yasmeen agreed to become the wife of an American veteran so she could flee persecution in war-torn Syria. She counted on being in the United States for a short stay until she could return home. There was one thing she did not count on: wanting more.

Is it too late for Adam and Yasmeen?”

You know why it appeals to me? Because the male protagonist, Adam, is a very believable Iraq veteran. And the Syrian Civil War is the backdrop for the story.

When it comes to Syria, Lilas knows whereof she speaks. Her book, which I’ve read a couple of times, is an eye-opening and humanizing look at a war that often looks inhuman on television. I recently talked with Lilas about her book (and her background, which is just as interesting).

Please tell us about your family background, roots and how you wound up living in Texas.

My roots spread deep in the Middle East. My father is from Palestine, my mother is from Syria, and I was born in Kuwait. I spent most of my schooling years in Kuwait, almost all of my summers in Syria, and some time in Europe. I graduated from Kuwait University with a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, and stepped into the working force with a job as a scientific researcher. How I ended up in Texas is a long story. But I will tell it anyway.

Summer of 1990, I took my first 3-week vacation and traveled to Sweden to visit an uncle, my father’s brother, who I had not met before. It is important for me to connect with all my relatives as much as possible, specifically because they are scattered all over the world as refugees. At the time, my only older brother was studying for his doctorate degree in the United States, and I had not seen him in a year. While I was in Sweden, he called and encouraged me to get a tourist visa to go visit him for a week. I had crossed half the distance, he had said, and all was left was to cross the ocean. I was young and adventurous, loved to see new places, had another uncle in the States I could connect with, and I missed my brother. So I got a tourist visa stamped on my passport, packed a week-long carryon bag, leaving most of my clothes in my suitcase in Sweden to pick up on my way back, and traveled to Madison, Wisconsin where my brother lived.

A few days after I arrived in Madison, Saddam Husain invaded Kuwait. The world I knew fell apart. My brother and I had no news of my parents and other family members who were in Kuwait at the time. We had no idea what was happening, what to do and how to go about finding out. My brother was a working student living on a very tight budget, and I had very little vacation money left to spend. Several days passed in shock, trying to swallow panic, making expensive phone calls to try to locate my parents, until finally, they were able to flee Kuwait through Iraq, through Jordan, and into Syria. They were safe. This was the second time my father had to flee war, the first in 1948, when he was displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel.

The visa I had was about to expire, and my return date back to Sweden passed. I had none of my education or work documents, summer clothes in an increasingly cold place, no money to buy anything or another airplane ticket, and no place to go. My uncle went about asking for help from the U.S. government, which gave us the option to send me back to my place of residence, Kuwait, an active war zone. Buying a ticket to go to Syria meant borrowing money, no way I was going to put my brother or my uncle through a debt like that.

So I made the decision to try to secure a future. Try my hardest, and if I failed, then I would accept my fate. Every problem had a solution, I was taught. And I set on finding mine. During the remaining time before my tourist visa expired, I went everyday to the University, talked to professors, trying to convince at least one that I had a degree, and asking to give me a chance. My plan was to get accepted into the Master’s program and get a student visa that would allow me legal stay and a decent future. However, I couldn’t get any of my papers from Kuwait University, the whole country was locked in war.

Though not in my field of study, one professor in the Industrial Engineering department graciously listened to me and asked if I was willing to take exams to prove I had a degree in Engineering. I eagerly agreed, sat in his classes for a couple of weeks, and did well on every exam he gave me. Two days before my visa expired, as I was resigning myself to the fact that I had to leave the country to the unknown, the professor called me into the department head’s office and informed me I was accepted into the Human Factor’s Engineering Master’s program on the condition I would present my university degree documents from Kuwait when circumstances allowed it. I was also hired into a research position with another wonderful professor.

I was set. I had lost my past and security, but I gained an opportunity to make a future. My student visa granted me legal stay. I started regular classes, worked in the research lab and had money to live off. That wasn’t enough fortune bestowed on me. I fell in love and was loved back. Eighteen months later, I married my brother’s amazingly wonderful best friend, who became my best friend too, graduated, and moved with my husband to Texas to start a family.

The backdrop of your novel is the Syrian civil war. How has that war personally affected you?

Having roots in Syria from my mother’s side, I have deep ties to the country and its culture. Furthermore, my father’s family also lived in Syria as Palestinian refugees. Every chance my parents had, they took us to Syria to connect with family members on both sides. As an American, I culturally identify myself to have a mix of Syrian and Palestinian background.

Emotionally, I grew up in Damascus, even though I lived in Kuwait. My time in Syria was the backdrop for my social development into adulthood. When the uprising started in March of 2011, I understood the initial peaceful movement. I understood the driving force behind it, the desire to live free of oppression and with dignity. But when it quickly spiraled into full civil war, every thought and emotion left me, replaced by fear. Family, loved ones, friends and acquaintances are caught by the incomprehensible violence. And I know death does not discriminate when it sweeps in with bombs, bullets and destruction.

Some family members and friends were able to flee to neighboring countries; Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. So many are still trapped in Syria. Some I have mourned already.

Your story definitely added a human face to the conflict in Syria for me. Was that one of your goals, or is it just a byproduct of the story?

Absolutely my goal. I didn’t just set out to write a story. I had a deep desire to catch part of the struggles survivors go through by no means, giving their agony its due rights. Although my characters are completely fictional, I drew on my own experiences to express the jumble of emotions involved.

My aim was not to describe a political climate that was, and still is, too volatile and complicated to explain without delving in history lessons. I wanted to write about emotions, about the people who have to endure the rest of their lives with unusually heavy loads on their backs. I wanted to write about life, rather than death and destruction. But how could I do that when the premise of the plot is set in two still active wars?

I am constantly aware of the heavy price any meaningful success requires of people. When I worked with domestic abuse victims, I saw a different kind of survival; people escaping the wars they carry within. I also became aware of an alternate burden carried by some American soldiers who were involved in Iraq. I wanted to bring the two worlds together. The hopeful dreamer that I am, I wanted my hero and heroine, two destroyed souls by completely different wars, to have a chance in life. And so the story of Yasmeen and Adam began.

Readers of my blog are going to be very interested in your depiction of Adam, the Iraq War veteran and male protagonist. What was your inspiration for the way you wrote him?

I had a very specific vision of Adam’s character from the start. I didn’t want to invent a hero who was too far from reality. No one is perfect, no one is invincible, and no one is courageous, charming and wonderful all the time. I wanted my hero to be real, to have issues, to be close and reachable to readers. I don’t know if I managed to do that, but I wrote the character with the idea that he could be the guy sitting next to a reader on a bench in a park, bus, or airplane. I read a lot of books, and saw many movies depicting soldiers. I always felt something was missing with the way most characters were designed, lacking steadiness and credibility.

Through my work as a domestic abuse victims advocate, I mainly dealt with women and children. Very rarely did I have contact with abusers. I saw the devastating effect of abuse on children, and how it destroys their lives in adulthood. On occasion, I saw a glimpse of how strong human spirits triumphed in the face of such cruelty. I admired that struggle and wanted to write about it. And so Adam’s character became clearer in my head.

I’ve mentioned several times on my blog how infuriating the process of getting a book published is. How difficult was it for you to get this book published?

Knowing nothing about the writing world, and the publishing field in general, I had no idea what to do. It was my first attempt at writing a novel in English, so my confidence and self-esteem didn’t match my ambition to get published, didn’t even come close.

Like every problem I faced in my life, I set on finding a solution – you see a trend here, don’t you? I joined a writers critique group, took in valuable feedback, and learned about the craft from fellow writers like yourself – thank you so much by the way. I knew I had a good story that was bound to catch the eye of an agent or a publisher’s acquirer, but I really didn’t register the magnitude of the difficult process of actually finding one. Ignorance is bliss, they say. I plunged forward, sending query letters, fumbling with synopsis, going to conferences, and meeting agents – some I’d rather never have come across, and some I respected and appreciated.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones. After setting on my writing journey by just two years, my book was acquired by a magnificently accomplished editor at Soul Mate Publishing, who guided me through the maze until the book is released. Listening to struggles of fellow authors and writers, I would have to say my journey into publication was not that difficult, though highly frustrating at times. My ultimate dream is for this story to catch the attention of a movie producer.

What’s next for you as an author?

I’m working on my second novel, tentative title is “Voices from Jerusalem”. The plot is set mostly in the Middle East, and it involves a different war – so many to choose from, unfortunately. It follows the life of a young man who is raised in unusual and unconventional circumstances. Again, I draw on my background to create the events, though it is fiction. This time, I am using my father’s background to set the plot. My aim is to shed new light on human relations under a different conflict. A love story blossoms in a volatile environment. I hope it would appeal to readers who enjoyed Shadows of Damascus.

—————————————————-

Guys, I hope you enjoyed the interview. And I hope you check out Shadows of Damascus, and do Lilas the honor of leaving a review. Thanks,

Chris



17 Responses to “Interview with author Lilas Taha about her new novel “Shadows of Damascus””

  1. A degree in engineering? I’m in awe… I wasn’t too sure I would be interested in the novel until I read the interview. Someone with Lilas Taha’s life & work experience has interesting things to say. I might read her book after I read „Line in the valley“.

    • 2 Vendetta

      It’s interesting, there’s a Syrian woman living in Damascus I correspond with who’s also an engineer. That’s one of the things that comes up in a lot with Assad’s supporters (she and the other Syrians I talk to are all staunch Assad defenders), is that the Syrian government is very progressive about letting women be educated and work, that and how it is religiously tolerant and pluralist, whereas the Islamist rebels (read: 80-90% of the rebels) want women back in their homes and under veils and sharia law to be enforced.

      They send me lots of pictures and messages featuring this sort of thing. “Women in Syria can fly planes, women in Saudi Arabia can’t even drive.” There’s also Syrian government documentaries featuring all the women they’ve recruited into the armed forces and militias, and even just in any video of a street scene in Damascus you can see a ton of women and girls in Western style clothing and haircuts, hardly a headscarf in sight.

      • Vendetta,
        I tried my best to stay out of politics, and even while discussing my book, I try to concentrate on the human element trapped in this conflict. Any social environment compared to Saudi Arabia is considered progressive. But that doesn’t say much. Unfortunately, the conflict in Syria became trapped by the tight box of religious ignorance and madness, but that’s not the whole issue. Freedom of thought and personal dignity cannot be underestimated or overshadowed by any terms. The Syria I grew up in restricted those basic rights, and no matter how open-minded or progressive the society was towards us women, it’s government deprived all citizens of their pride. I cannot speak to the mindset of the women who defend the current regime, and I share none of the “fanatic” rebels crazy ideology. I understand the position of the majority of the opposition, who are normal, dignified people wanting to live free of oppression.
        Thank you for digging deeper into this matter, and I do hope if and when you read my book, you would send me feedback.

        • 4 Vendetta

          Thank you Lilas, Chris’ review definitely made it sound interesting, I will be adding it to my reading list. I’ll be continuing to keep up with things in Syria and hoping the best for your people.

    • Thank you, Natalie. I’m glad I sparked your interest. If you do read my book, I would hope you enjoy it, and send me honest review and feedback.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for the opportunity to discuss my book and writing struggles. I’ve learned so much from you and took heart during the difficult journey after sharing frustrations with an accomplished writer like yourself. Although we are on opposite ends on many scales, we do have common interest in the writing field. I enjoyed your fist book, and am looking forward to hosting you on my blog on Saturday 1/18 to discuss your second book “Line in the Valley”.

    • Back at ya, sister! Remember, this year we need to appear together on a panel somewhere, and talk about how people who are very different can still help each other achieve their dream of getting published.

  3. Great article! This sounds like a very exciting read. Good luck with sales, Lilas and thanks for hosting her, Chris! :)

  4. 10 Adam Wegner

    I must admit, I really want to read the novel now, and not just because My name is in it!!!! Adam Wegner sounds suspiciously close to the main male character, just saying.

    • Fabulous! Adam. I wanted my character to be real, but also in name? That’s too much :) I can’t wait to know what you think of the story. Be kind and let me know, pleae.

  5. Though I am ignorant in a literary sense and am no critic I did however draw from personal experiences feelings of impacting depth in the things said by Lilas in this interview. When I read (Shadows of Damascus) I may only glimpse the tip of an iceberg in the cultural exchange; never the less I’m sure it will speak volumes to me. Also looking forward to reading beyond the horrors of injustice and war that keep people from being whole. I have some ideas of my own but expect I’ll have a great learning experience in this aspect of the book.

    Chris I do believe you asked the right questions and Lilas’s responses drew me in which was a surprise to me in that I was wrongly thinking “just” love story. I guess each reader gets what they get from any text but I can already see a voice of experience who will undoubtedly express details often missed in characterization. Chris this is what I get from reading that which you write. I’m now on my second go round on your book “Proof of our Resolve” There was no way I could read it once and absorb a fraction of what it contains.

    Long before I reached the part where Lilas said ultimately she’d like to see this made into a movie I was thinking the same thing. My next thought was the movie needs Lilas on final say in the direction of the movie. How can anyone direct something they have not experienced; the entire point is the true meaning behind her words. If this takes place it will be “great” and a by product of great is many fold.

    I truly feel that leaving the political aspect out as much as possible is the wisest thing Lilas could have done. Why pull away from what can be learned and vicariously experienced by the reader in terms of real value one can walk away with. Why mess that up? thank you.

    Chris, thank you for the introduction to Lilas and her book; looking forward to reading it. Lilas we do indeed bring part of our past with us and leave part of ourselves behind. It seems the larger the impact the larger portions we carry with us as well as leave behind, thank you both!

    • Patrick, Thank you for explaining the source of your interest in my book. It is very valuable for a writer to know the kind of impact her words have on a reader. As Chris may testify, writing this book was not an easy process, technichally, linguistically, and emotionally. Knowing that I might have sparked deeper thought, and not just entertained, is uplifiting for me. When you do read Shadows of Damascus, I hope you will see and feel what I tried to express of the unseen scars and burdens that hang on to us, or the ones we try to leave behind. Though, I know you have better knowledge about that than me.

  6. I’m pleased I stopped to read this interview. I’ve been on the hunt for a new novel with depth and I think you’ve just provided me what I’m looking for. Terrific interview.

    • Sheridegrom, I’m very encouraged by your interest. I hope you will enjoy reading my novel, and would love feedback.


  1. 1 Arab American Woman’s Book Inspired by Current Events in Syria - The Arab Daily News | The Arab Daily News
  2. 2 My Palestine - The Arab Daily News | The Arab Daily News

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