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A Conversation with Gretchen McCullough

by Sherine Elbanhawy

About writing Confessions of a Knight Errant: Drifters, Thieves and Ali Baba’s Treasure

What I love about Confessions of a Knight Errant is the humour; it’s the inclusion of daily incidents that are weird and funny at the same time. I end up laughing because it’s so familiar. How do you weave these details to make otherwise sombre conversations more lighthearted and spirited?

Literature should be entertaining. This is something that the poet Mohamed Metwalli always says. This novel was fun to write. I enjoyed writing it. I had a lot of fun writing it; maybe it’s me laughing at my own jokes. When I hear other writers saying that the writing was torturous and hated writing their novels, I wonder why they do it because that’s not my experience.

When I forget about eating and don’t even realize that the day has gone by and I’m still sitting at my desk immersed in my story, that’s my true joy. There’s so much joy in writing.

I also extensively researched requirements, cleanliness, and what causes restaurants to close down. I also researched plumbing; a lot goes into writing a novel.

This novel has something profound to say about people who live between countries and never fit in.

I’m interested in how things play out in different countries. People in Cairo sometimes say my life would be much better if I were in the US. They don’t realize all the benefits of living in Egypt and having more time to socialize and be with family and friends. You’re not on the hamster’s wheel, the way life in the West forces you to be. In the US, everything is so tightly structured time-wise, you don’t get to have those moments. It’s not a family-oriented life; it’s a work-driven, work-focused life, high-achievement, focusing on money, houses and cars. I’m surprised at how many conversations in Texas revolve around these things, and I live in Cairo in a rental apartment without a car, and I will argue that I live really well and enjoy my life.

How are the characters in the novel disconnected from home and their intimate relationships?

This is one of the serious aspects that I’m trying to get at with the novel. The fact that we are all on a path of disconnect. Not just a technology disconnect. People are moving between cultures; there’s even a disconnect between each other in homes, let alone adding the changes of where you live, grow up, or work, and you neither fit in here nor there. This in-betweenness is what I’m interested in and how people are negotiating that space.

Everyone is increasingly immersed in another culture because of social media and internet streaming offerings of international multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, art, music, movies, and tv shows.

This is one of the problems that people think or believe the internet is giving them a cross-cultural experience, but movies aren’t real life; they only provide an aspect of a culture, a filtered two dimension, without understanding the socio-political context, their understanding is still limited. This assumption of knowledge is part of the disconnect that people think they know something but don’t.

How did you keep it all in your head, all the different characters? When did you begin this novel?

When I went to the writer’s residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center, Ireland, in 2013, I thought I would write about a house I had visited in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I took that manuscript with me, read the first 75 pages, looked at it, and realized that’s not me anymore; I don’t want to work on this. I had gone through this experience before with my first novel, which I had never published. So then, I don’t know how it popped into my mind, but I had loved Gary and Kharalombos so much that I wondered – well… what would happen if they went? And that’s how it started. It always begins with a question, and following that question opens the door to the story.

At the Tyrone Guthrie Center residency was when the Irish connection found its way into the story. I was hanging around all these Irish cooks during the retreat who were very practical, grounded and aware of the real challenges of life. I spoke to others outside the writing center too, and many didn’t want to talk about the conflict; they wanted to bury the past and move on. But that’s how that thread got woven in.

Did you pull the murder from the news or the archives?

The murder actually happened. Near my parent’s place in Texas in the Hill Country, on an adjoining property. My mother told me about the murder, she was at home painting the house with her friends, and there were suddenly helicopters above, and then the police cordoned off the whole area. I still fictionalized many additions, but the core story was true: the owner had bought the property in cash.

After 2011, many antiquities disappeared during the Arab Spring, and I decided to connect those two events.

Regarding your writing process, with this book, you have so many threads; how did you weave them together? Did you write the first draft cold, plot the characters, or did you do an outline?

I usually have a loose plan, but once I’m in the flow of my writing, I try not to be too rigid about what needs to happen, and sometimes ideas will pop up, and I go with them. A lot of it is intuitive too. Gary is not me, but there are parts of me, and I put myself in the shoes of all my characters; for example, what if I were the person responsible for this camp? What’s the worst possible scenario?

There were many surprises in the writing too, I didn’t know that the camp’s captain was going to talk, but suddenly it seemed he needed to speak.

When does that happen while you’re writing? Do you hear the voice, or does the idea come first?

It’s the situation that forces a change, maybe demands a shift in perspective. For example, now I’m writing a third-person narration of someone at the end of their life; some chapters are retrospective, confronting their mortality, and others are him reliving his youth. At one point, there was a nurse in the novel, then it occurred to me that he stole her diary, and those chapters speak in the first person. It’s similar to Warda by Sonallah Ibrahim, which I just reviewed. It works because the boy remembers, and then the diary entry provides a different point of view of the same period.

Sometimes some issues get resolved organically, with my instinct; sometimes, a walk solves many problems. If I were to give any advice to future novelists, I would say you don’t over-schedule yourself; you need to make time, you need to carve space, and extensive stretches of time. You need the continuity of being in the world of the novel every day.

How long did it take you to write the book?

On and off for about four years, I had a sabbatical from AUC. Many writers don’t do revision, but revision is so critical, and having good readers is essential; I went through many beta-readers and continued to revise and incorporate readers’ feedback and critique. These readers will help you make the best book it could be; you have to be open to making changes and not be rushed by a timeline or deadline.

Not everything is instinct; the initial process is instinctive, but every writer has to shape it, mould it, and craft it through multiple revisions. Craft matters increasingly each time, and you have the opportunity to polish it. Every writer has blind spots, and you discover them in revisions through readers.

But not all feedback must be incorporated; for example, my mentor, Allen Wier, thought the novel should be in third, I disagreed, but he gave me other comments. I revised and integrated his feedback about Gary in earlier versions of the novel, who, in his opinion, didn’t come across as male enough. So I went back and worked more on his physicality.

What about your writing practice? Do you sit daily? Have word count goals?

I don’t have daily writing goals, word count, or number of pages. But currently, I do turn off my phone each morning, from the moment I wake up until noon, and I try not to go anywhere other than the room I’m in. I remain in the mood in my chair. Sometimes it’s not writing; it’s research or just thinking about a character or a detail that matters.

Did the structure of the novel also come organically?

How you structure a novel is related to the theme of the story. Some writers will say I knew everything that would happen in my book, and my reply is always that’s not a good strategy; a writer should write to discover something. To answer a pressing question, sometimes the answers are unclear, and you aren’t sure what it is; if you already know what happens, then it’s a script, and there won’t be anything spontaneous.

Being a writer is like being a detective trying to resolve a crime; his process is very intuitive, discovering the characters and understanding their motives. Similarly, a writer has to create character profiles, even if the details aren’t included in the final manuscript, and most of the time, they won’t. The writer’s discovery of the characters allows them to understand where they are coming from, their behaviour, and their triggers. Thus, all has to be figured out beforehand, or the characters are flat, not believable or just stereotypes.

Do you mesh your own experiences into the novel?

At the Vermont Studio Center, in the work-writing program, I worked as a cook in the morning – in the industrial kitchen – with huge pots and pans. Nobody wanted to do it; everyone thought I was crazy, I was the only one who signed up to cook at 6 am, and I thought it would be a great way for me to get my work-study finished at the beginning of the day, so I would have time the rest of the day to write. So, I think, perhaps, the idea of Gary working in the kitchen came from there, and I did work in a few restaurants, including Domino’s Pizza, a fiasco, during my college years too.

Do you have a favourite character? They are all so genuine and authentic, quirky and well-rounded, but still, is there one that stands out to you?

Mary Alice Bodewell was based on a missionary I knew at Ramsis College for Girls; she passed away a long time ago. She was in my unpublished first novel, and I took her from that novel. I wondered if she was elsewhere, but I brought her into this contemporary setting.

“Mary Alice Bodewell,” she said. Her blue eyes twinkled. “Retired missionary. Presbyterian Church. I was in Tehran when it fell.”

I also have an affinity for Kharalombos; I love his tantrums and his search for rumi cheese across Texas. I also love how the friendship between Gary and Kharalombos has evolved and is different outside of Egypt, the power dynamic is changed, yet Kharalombos continues to act like he’s still in Egypt.

 The cover works so well on so many levels- it reflects the adventure idea and the cross-cultural, and not being too serious reflects the quirky side of the novel too.

I’m so happy with the cover; it’s perfect. It was like a scene from an Egyptian soap opera. When the books came from the US, there was a guy from the post office with a giant plastic bag and a carton box, and I had to run back to my Zoom meeting. So it was Mohamed who opened the books first and was so moved because he didn’t know I would dedicate the novel to him.

That sounds like something that would take place in your novel; I love how life sometimes follows the pattern of the novel or vice-versa. It’s similar to what happened to your publisher; may he rest in peace.

I needed an American publisher; it’s not a book for here, unlike my previous books; this was meant for an American audience.

I’m so sad that I didn’t meet my publisher because, after so many rejections, he read it and sent me a contract a week later. It was surreal after I had almost given up on getting it published. Then, the moment it’s published, he passes away. It’s almost like it fits into the weirdness and unexpectedness of the novel.

What about the title? Was it your first choice? The Don Quixote- a parallel of a confessional – adventure – works well.

William Melaney is who came up with the title. He was excellent at tightening and pointing out extraneous material, and then he’d highlight other parts essential to the plot.

Did the publisher have any issues with including foreign words and so much Arabic?

The publisher loved it; he is used to publishing writers from our region and understood how the Arabic added authenticity. I didn’t always translate Arabic; I imagined diaspora readers and the ability of non-Arabic readers to Google if they are curious.

“She made a cuckold out of me.” He gestured with his hands. “You can see how he spoiled my show. Utterly spoiled. Working here is impossible. Mish mumkin!”

Any last-minute advice to budding writers out there?

– It’s a time-consuming process but something I love.

– Sonallah Ibrahim told me the beginning is slow, so I shaved off a bit.

They always say to come in late and leave early.

– Sharp dialogue is key.

– Never force yourself to fit into a certain paradigm that feels odd

– Carve long periods for your writing. Don’t over-schedule yourself.

– Most of all, enjoy the ride; the reader will feel it.

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