Although Zoë Ferraris’ prose may seem effortlessly elegant, our conversation with her revealed how much hard work and craft go into achieving that quality. Writing is a never-ending journey, and although Zoë gets “stuck in the muck” at times, she most definitely makes her way out. If you haven’t yet picked up Kingdom of Strangers, we highly suggest you do. But beware–once you pick it up, there’s no putting it down.
1) What inspired you to write Kingdom of Strangers?
My mystery series was inspired by living in Saudi Arabia. I was married to a man from Jeddah, and before going there, I had all kinds of misconceptions about the place that were unfortunately very normal for Americans to have. These stereotypes, which still show up all the time, always make Saudi Arabia seem flat. With my books, I wanted to open a window into that society and show people something more truthful: a country in all of its sprawling, contradictory, messy realness.
2) Where, when and how often do you write?
I write 5-6 days a week, literally 9-5. I sit in an overstuffed chair in my living room, laptop on my lap. My dog stares at me gloomily. The only interesting thing, really, is happening on the page. Mostly.
3) How much preparation do you usually do prior to writing a book? For example, do you construct a timeline of your novels?
Early in my career, I’d write a novel, pantser-style, put it in a drawer for a few months, then go back to it later and think: what the actual—? I would usually die with embarrassment. Then I’d rework it. It was a completely insane process.
Nowadays, I have a better sense of whether or not my ideas can carry a novel, and I can identify when they’re ripe enough for me to start writing. So, novels take preliminary work to reach ripeness.
There is one thing that must absolutely be firm and clear before I start writing—the main character’s dilemma. I say “dilemma” because if it’s not complicated and hard to resolve, it’s really not going to be able to fertilize a whole novel. It doesn’t have to be an actual moral dilemma, just a problem where a character is caught between hard and hard—by their definition. I can drape a comfy genre structure on it (dead body, investigator, suspects, plot) but without the dilemma, it’s going to feel like a dead husk.
I wrote my first novel, Finding Nouf, and it was a big sprawling mess until I realized that my main character’s dilemma was the story. I know it’s a duh moment, but for me—I’m a world-builder—it took time to realize that all my descriptions and vignettes and insights into the world of my novel (Saudi Arabia) were just like little fever dreams with no real substance unless I could make them mean something for my characters.
I do keep a running outline while I write any novel. It’s where I write my ideas and try to keep a handle on my structure, but it is subject to constant refinement. I don’t think there’s ever a been moment when I have just followed an outline all the way through a book.
The problem with outlines is that when I write one, I’m thinking about my characters at arm’s length. I’m not on the page with them yet. So I come up with all kinds of plans for them, the same way your mom can be like, “You should be a lawyer!” And it’s really some fantasy. Later, when I actually get on the page, my characters take their own turns (or so it seems), and if you try to Tiger Mom them back into the plan, the whole thing starts to feel unnatural. So I try to keep a flexible outline and let it change when my characters do.
4) Do you often develop your characters prior to writing, or do they naturally evolve and develop as you write?
They evolve. Sometimes it takes years for me to see them clearly. I once wrote a whole novel and realized I had the wrong main character—she became a sidekick. I tried to console myself with this wasted effort by thinking: at least I know everything about my sidekick! But alas, even she changed.
My favorite thing about writing—and reading—is world building. The down side: I would get 100 pages into a novel and realize I didn’t have a handle on my story. So I spent a long time developing my understanding of character. What do I want from characters? Who interests me? Why? Are they interesting enough for an entire novel?
In order to get to the ripeness place I mention above, I do need to develop characters and their dilemmas. I do this very consciously now. I don’t wait for inspiration, I just sit down and start brainstorming. I have a method for tackling it, maybe too tedious to describe fully here, but I start with basic questions: What does she want? Why? Why isn’t she getting it? What would happen if she got it? Do you really care if she gets it?
5) How do you stay inspired when you get a writing block?
I don’t. I just wallow in the muck for a while and let the damn thing sort itself out while I silently panic. It usually will sort itself out, and sometimes you need those breaks in order to come back with a clear mind.
I know it’s not pretty, but just sitting down in a chair and pushing on with resolve is often the right approach. Habits can turn dull, but they can also be really grounding. If I’m really stuck on something, I’ll work on something else. Start a new project. Write a short story or a blog post. As long as I’m writing.
When it’s a smaller kind of block, like “I don’t know what happens next,” I either go back to my outlines/story points and try to figure out what should happen, or I do a kind of walking meditation on the problem. I do something mundane—wash dishes, vacuum, take a walk, etc—and keep an ear to the ground for the flash of insight I need. Intuition is kinda quiet, annoyingly, so you have to pay attention, but not pay too much attention. It’s like coaxing a little diva of an orchid to bloom.
6) What are the most agonizing aspects of the writing process?
Constant. Self. Doubt. You just have to roll with it. You can medicate for it but it’s much smarter to meditate with it—just let it sit there. It’s a necessary beast because it includes useful things like self-awareness, humility, and the ability to read your work critically. It’s a part of editing. It’s just not good when it starts to attack your creative, fun, risk-taking self. The trick is to recognize when self-doubt crosses the line from useful to destructive, and to guard against those moments.
7) What are the most enjoyable?
I don’t really understand why writing is so satisfying but I suspect it is the pleasure of just creating something. Like baking a nice cake, or building a house.
There’s a complicated aspect, though. This feeling that it’s not really your idea but something that exists “out there” supplying you with inspiration or vision or ideas, and for some weird reason you got in touch with this thing, and moved by it, and you’re suddenly tapped into something big and mysterious that probably can’t be explained by science yet, unfortunately, so unless you experience it, it sounds a little woo. Thinking about what this process is, and being part of it, is really enjoyable.
8) Who is your favourite writer, and favourite book?
I really love Kate Atkinson and Donna Tartt. They’re the ones I re-read. I also love Philip Pullman and will read anything he writes. My favorite book is The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. It cast some spell on me and I’ve never quite shaken it.
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