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Staircase of a Thousand Stepsby Masha Hamilton
Author Q & A
Why did you decide to leave a successful career in journalism and pursue fiction writing full time? Do you miss the pace and rush of life as a correspondent? Do you still pursue the occasional story?
I always wanted to write fiction, even as a child, but I also wanted to rush out into the world and have adventures, so a career as a foreign correspondent seemed an attractive compromise. At the end of nearly ten years overseas, during my tour in Moscow, I began to dream characters and stories. I woke up each morning with my head full of them, but by midday they'd been pushed aside by the demands of my job. In frustration, I told my husband one morning, "I'm going to lose them all, because I don't have time to write them down." And he, cutting right to it, said, "So quit and write." Slowly I understood that although it was a risk to leave my defined world as a journalist and slip into a room alone to make up tales, that's what I needed to do, and this was the moment.
I don't miss the rush, though I loved it at the time. It was exciting. I covered some rich and enriching stories. Now I'm up to my neck in fiction, and that's where I want to be.
Why did you choose to become a foreign correspondent? Do you have a strong interest in the Middle East and Russia?
I wanted to report overseas, in part, to scrub my eyes clean. That's what I think a foreign environment can do. I wanted to live with the exotic long enough to have my fill, and then go find more exotic. I wanted to understand in my gut what other people were experiencing in other worlds. I wanted to inhale unfamiliar scents. I wanted new languages to sink into my head and roll off my tongue.
I'm drawn to passion and energy, and that's why I fell in love with both the Middle East and the Soviet Union in transition. I remain very interested in both parts of the world, and connected through friendships. I have found that one makes friends quickly and profoundly in times of crisis.
What was your inspiration for Staircase of a Thousand Steps?
Ein Fadr is based upon an actual village I stumbled upon in the West Bank. Embedded in the hills not far from a modern Jewish settlement, it had somehow slipped through time unchanged, remote from political passions. It was without electricity or running water, and a shepherd tending his sheep nearby seemed amused when I asked whether he didn't wish for those amenities. The village and the shepherd gripped my imagination and, years later, helped form the framework of both the fictional Ein Fadr with its timeless quality, and the character of Harif.
Harif and Faridah presented themselves to me pretty much complete; they both had very strong voices and views, it was a matter of gently tugging back the covers so I could see them. Jammana came more in bits and pieces.
Your novel is told in multiple voices, achieving a layered effect not unlike a chorus. Did you choose consciously to write in various points of view initially, or did your story develop over time and lead you there instead?
I don't outline a story in advance because I find I become too controlling and the story becomes too processed. When I began Staircase, I started with the voice of Harif and the day he envisioned his mother's death. As the story developed, I began to hear quite distinctly the voices of Faridah and Jammana, so I began writing their sections as well. I understood fairly early on that all three of them had something separate to say, although the order in which they spill out their stories didn't become clear until later in the process. I belong to a great writers' group and their input also helped me re-envision aspects of the story even as I was writing it.
How is writing a novel different from writing journalism? Is it difficult to switch between the two?
As a journalist I worked hard to keep myself out of the copy. In order to witness violence and cruelty, interview victims and survivors, work in dangerous situations and report on it all professionally, I formed a kind of outer stoicism, like a scab, that led to an inner stoicism. When I sat down to write a novel, I had to reopen those emotional valves because all these characters who are not me still must be informed by me. At certain points I completely let go of the idea of plot in the traditional sense, and focused solely on the emotional lives of my characters.
Switching between journalism and fiction writing is difficult for me primarily because when I'm working on a fiction manuscript it absorbs all my spare energy, and the same is true of journalism.
You returned to Israel and the West Bank last fall. Why? Has life in Israel and the West Bank changed since last fall?
I went back to do research for the manuscript I am currently working on. I decided to go the day the Israeli soldiers were lynched in Ramallah and the Israeli Air Force carried out retaliatory raids. I knew rage on both sides was at a high level and would hang there for a while, and that's what I wanted to experience. So I telephoned a longtime photographer friend. I reached her on her cell phone just as she was driving out of Ramallah with her film and she agreed to let me crash at her home. Once there, I went out with her and other colleagues into the West Bank during protests, funerals, rallies. I felt exhilarated and depressed at once. I felt afraid a couple times. I spent some time away from the trouble spots with both Israeli and Palestinian friends, sharing food and talk. I tried to absorb everything and I think it has deepened the project I'm working on now.
Since Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister, I would say there has been a negative shift in the mood among Israelis and Palestinians ? a hardening among the right-wing factions and a growing despair among the remaining moderates.
Your novel is non-political yet set in a highly divided and political region of our world. Why did you choose to emphasize story and narrative here rather than write a political book?
Often in the Middle East, place is seen as a problem. Bloody conflicts arise from competing claims on the land. But beneath the violence and politics lie magic, history, passion. This is the land where Adam is said to be buried, where Abraham walked with the sons of his old age, and where a woman, if she looks over her shoulder at the wrong moment, can be turned to stone. The characters in Staircase, I felt, had to live in a place as timeless as water, and play out their stories largely apart from the obscuring fog of politics.
What are you working on now?
A novel manuscript, also set in the Middle East but in current time. The main character is a journalist. Its working title is Lust of the Eye, which is a phrase from the Bible but also alludes to a news reporter's determination to see everything in order to do her job. In part, it's about how news reporters and photographers can become addicted to risk. How the drug of danger and near-misses can offer an escape from the painful or mundane parts of their lives, and make them feel more alive.
Much of your novel depicts gender conflict in Arab society. Since the novel is set in 1967, do you feel your portrayal, while accurately reflecting society at the time, is no longer true to contemporary gender relations?
If only! Gender conflict is a constant — in modern societies like ours as well as more traditional ones. In that part of the world, sure, some women and men are trying to defy tradition — just as the characters do in Staircase — and sometimes they succeed, at least partly or within their own homes. But countless others are trapped in villages with old rules, feeling alone and isolated like Rafa does in the cave, convinced that struggling against the old ways is useless or even counterproductive. In the book, the men have Moses' Finger and the women have Alula's shrine. These are invented, but reflect the reality that women still gather in traditional places to feel safe together, and men do the same.
One important divide that comes up between Jammana's parents is the issue of revenge. Women, especially mothers, often have different views from men on whether revenge is the right response to violence and loss. It's true in the book, and still true in the Middle East today.
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