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10 Questions for Nouri Zarrugh

That last February before the war and the hard years that were to follow it, forty-one years after the Leader’s revolution, Laila woke to the sound of explosions in the street. She sat clutching the blanket, eyes darting, half expecting to find herself buried in dust and rubble, her vision slowly adjusting to the familiar sight of the armoire and the floral cushions piled beside it, the matching nightstand and the ceramic lamp and on the other side of them, undisturbed, the sheets tucked and folded, Hajj Yunus’s empty bed, glowing in the faint moonlight like a preserved artifact. —from "The Leader," MR's Working Titles, Vol. 2, Number 3

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I had a fascination with horror, the odd and the grotesque as a child. I read and re-read books like Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series. I was particularly drawn to the cover art and to the illustrations inside these types of books. So, early on, I wrote and illustrated a lot of similar stories—werewolves, mummies, and the like.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Edward P. Jones is a writer whose work really shook me, both in its emotional resonance and honesty and in its structural and stylistic innovations. His books made me reconsider what was possible in terms of scope and perspective in fiction. Cormac McCarthy is another contemporary writer who’s had a significant influence, and I’ve learned a lot from his work about tone and language, and how dramatically the latter can influence the former. Other important influences are Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Michael Ondaatje, Gabriel García Márquez, and Annie Proulx, among others. Of course, I’ve found a great deal of inspiration in the classics as well, particularly Melville, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and later Twain.

 I’ve also always had a keen interest in spirituality and philosophy, and these have played an important role in what I write about and how. I’m particularly drawn to the Bible, Qur’an, Aggadah, and various texts from the Sufi and Gnostic traditions, as well as thinkers like Schopenhauer and Cioran.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Libya, and its capital, Tripoli, in particular, have always loomed large in my imagination, first as places I’d constructed secondhand from my father’s memories, then, later, as real, living places I’d seen and experienced for myself. That said, I’m interested in lots of places, people, and periods, and I don’t plan to limit myself to any single one. There’s a lot in the world I want to learn, think, and write about.

What were the influences behind writing this piece?
I’d wanted to write about Libya for years, but it had always seemed like such a daunting task, and I never felt up to it, never felt I had the skill, that I knew enough or that the timing was right. There was also, of course, the fact that a large portion of my family still lives in Libya, and I certainly didn’t want to endanger them in any way. When the regime fell in 2011—and with the death of Gaddafi, this larger-than-life figure, in particular—it felt like a chapter had closed and there was a story to be told. I began to think of it less as a task and more as an opportunity and a privilege.

I was revisiting Edward P. Jones’s work at the time, and two of his stories were particularly inspiring for their ambitious scope and the way in which they manipulate time and perspective: ‘The Sunday Following Mother’s Day” and ‘The Girl Who Raised Pigeons.” His work is so wise and emotionally complex, and as a craftsman he is so confident, so unapologetic. He breaks so many “rules,” but through some magic he earns your trust and you just follow him where he leads. I was so moved by his work, and I wanted to see if I could impart a similar feeling in my own. I told myself I’d be thrilled if I could achieve even one one-hundredth of that goal.

When I first started the story it had a more traditional, linear structure and a much narrower perspective, focusing on a teenage Laila and ending with Abdou’s birth. The last scene was what I wrote first and it hasn’t really changed since. But as I looked it over, it didn’t feel right. Something was missing, and I wondered what would happen next. I think we’ve all had moments in our lives when everything seemed to shatter, when we felt like the world was coming to an end. But life always goes on, in some form. Even if we’re not ready to move on, and even if we never catch up—even if we die—the world moves on around us. That’s true of whole countries as much as it is of individuals. Like Libya itself, each of the characters has moments in ‘The Leader” when it seems like all is lost, but their stories don’t end there, and I didn’t think it would be fair for me to end them there. It would have been dishonest, blindered. So, really, the piece arose from me looking at that boy on the roof and asking: “And then what?”

Why this length for your work?
It certainly wasn’t planned. It is probably just a symptom of the amount of time and the number of perspectives covered in the story. That said, I think I also just like to take my time in developing characters and laying out scenes, and as a reader I appreciate when writers give their audience and their characters some room to breathe. It is a delicate balance, and you risk the reader losing interest, but when done well, I think the “long short story,” as shown by writers like Jones, Proulx, Katherine Anne Porter, and recently, Colm Tóibín and Adam Johnson, can be a singularly immersive experience, something that, because of their respective lengths, you might not quite find in a shorter story or a novel.

Is there any music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I don’t listen to music when I work. I find lyrics distracting and the instrumental music I do enjoy I would enjoy too much to focus on the task at hand. I sometimes listen to music when I’m thinking about a project in general terms, but I don’t put in headphones when I’m actually looking at pages.

If you could work in another art form what would you choose?
I have worked as an illustrator and printmaker, and visual art is something I still pursue seriously. I’d also love to be involved in filmmaking in a creative capacity outside of writing someday. As for something I’ve never tried, I am curious about interactive storytelling and game design, and I’d love to be able to compose music or play an instrument.

What did/do you want to be when you grow up?
Aside from a naive and embarrassingly-resilient dream I had as a child to be a professional basketball player, I have always wanted to do some sort of creative work, be it visual art, writing, filmmaking, photography, or what have you. For a time, I was set on being a children’s book illustrator. But creative writing, in a general sense, has almost always been the goal. I’ve never truly felt a calling outside of that. The closest I’ve come to going in a different direction was when I briefly studied journalism—which is a field I really admire—and, later, contemplated pursuing a PhD in Religious Studies or Philosophy, subjects which fascinate me and which I suspect I’d enjoy teaching, researching, and discussing.

What are you reading right now?
I recently finished Atticus Lish’s debut novel, Preparation for the Next Life, which I thought was really stunning. He’s earned a devoted reader in me for years to come. Also on my list are The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

What are you working on currently?
I am working on a novel that follows a few Libyan families during the Gaddafi era and developing a handful of film and television projects.

NOURI ZARRUGH is a Libyan-American writer and illustrator and is currently a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas, where he won the 2016 Keene Prize for Literature for "The Leader."

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