Mark Twain said write what you know. If you're intrigued by the idea of writing a novel, maybe you'll start by using your life as inspiration. In our latest National Novel Writing Month author interview, Randa Jarrar discusses how she developed the story of an Arab-American childhood for her debut novel A Map of Home. The book follows a young Muslim girl, born in the US, but raised in Kuwait. At 13, she must leave with her family when Iraq invades, and during the occupation they live in Egypt until they relocate to Texas. While it's far from a memoir, Randa did base some of the plot and many of the book's lessons on her past. If you're thinking about starting a novel during November, Randa can provide some insight.
TrèsSugar: How did you decide what to write about?
Randa Jarrar: I basically realized that nobody had written about a young Arab American in a way that I approved of or liked. So I wanted to write about it in a way that pleased me. Also, I felt like my background was too rich and cool to not tap into. I thought it would be a cop out to not write about my past, so even though the book is fiction, it calls on a lot of historical and personal experiences.
TS: Why did you choose nonfiction over a memoir?
RJ: I can't write nonfiction. My book is made up. Maybe 20 percent is nonfiction, but the rest is totally made up stories. My mom's not that sassy, and my dad's not nice — he's just an a*shole. There are things I had to do to make the characters relatable and likable and if I had written nonfiction my book would have been a lot shorter, more brutal, and less funny.
TS: What did you hope to achieve?
RJ: I didn't have a political message because I really hate didactic fiction that has a political message. I just wanted people to be entertained by it and I wanted them to maybe recognize their own childhoods in it. No matter what that person's background is. So if they were also Arab American I wanted them to recognize their own childhood, and if they weren't Arab American I wanted them to recognize their own childhood and think, oh wow I guess Arabs have childhoods too! You can say that's political, but I think it's just what literature does.
TS: What advice would you give someone who wants to use their own life for a novel?
RJ: If you're a fiction writer you should give yourself permission to fictionalize your life as much as you want. Don't over consider the outside voice that is going to tell you "that's not really what happened," but just go with your own version of the truth.
TS: What did you learn about your past while researching the book?
RJ: I had to do a lot of research even though this is based on something I knew about before. I still had to figure out why the father character has to leave Palestine in 1967, even though I knew there was a war, I didn't know the details. Geographically, I had the characters drive from Kuwait to Iraq to Jordan, and I had no idea about the details. Thinking about my past, I had to figure out what was the name of that town I drove through, or what was the name of that street corner. Probably the most fun thing about writing a book is that while it might trip you up that you don't know much about something, that's kind of why you write it — so you can delve deeper into topics you might not have had a chance to otherwise. Writing a book is a way to find out who you are and what topics you care about.
TS: How did you inject humor into your story?
RJ: I don't inject humor randomly, I like to link it to something heavy. I don't like reading serious fiction about topics I'm interested in, such as being a single parent, going through violence, or child abuse. I think humor is something a lot of marginalize populations incorporate, like some Jewish, Native American, or African American literature will have a strain of humor — it's a way to deal with the pain while still enjoying living, without giving up.