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Interview with Alicia Erian on "Towelhead"

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Interview with Alicia Erian on

Alicia Erian, Author of Towelhead

Image courtesy of Alicia Erian

Alicia Erian is the author of a book of short stories, "The Brutal Language of Love," and a well-received novel, "Towelhead." Born in Syracuse, New York, Alicia Erian received her B.A. in English from SUNY Binghamton and her M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College. Her work has appeared in Playboy, Zoetrope, Nerve, and The Iowa Review, among others.

Set in 1991 at the start of the first Gulf War, "Towelhead" follows Jasira, a 13-year-old whose mother has sent her to live with her Lebanese father after the mother's boyfriend shows an interest in her. Isolated and confused by her father's parenting methods, which consist of abusive scrutiny and neglect, Jasira falls into disturbing relationships with an African-American boy at her school, which infuriates her father, and with the reservist next-door neighbor, whose son she babysits.

Released in early 2005, "Towelhead quickly piled up rave reviews, including: "'Towelhead'...succeeds as an arch, coyly sexy book that's as nervy as its title," from The New York Times, and "Alicia Erian's compelling debut novel fits into several categories, but none too tidily. It's sad and sexy, comic and political," from the Dallas Morning News. Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under and "American Beauty," plans to make his directorial debut with "Towelhead."

Erian taught at Wellesley College. She was in Austin, Texas, for the Texas Book Festival the weekend of October 29, 2005. I was fortunate enough to grab an hour with her at the end of a busy day, before she set off to indulge her favorite vice, shopping.

About.com: You've been quoted as saying that you mostly read nonfiction because there are "too many damn dull moments" in fiction. The thing that struck me with Towelhead is that it moves really well. I couldn't put it down. How did you pull that off? What is the writing and editing process like for you?

Alicia Erian: That came up in my panel today. Somebody asked, "How do you find yourself being influenced by visual media?" I said that I don't feel particularly influenced by movies, but I've been writing screenplays for a long time; I started out writing short scripts. The screenplay form is really the most efficient form of storytelling because it's so expensive to make a movie. You can't fart around, and you shouldn't be farting around in a novel just because there's space and it's not necessarily going to cost anything to print extra pages. With a script there's no back story, you can't film back story, unless you have a flashback, which is lame -- nobody likes that. So you have to stay in the present of the story. And you can't say so-and-so is angry; you can only film what they're doing and saying -- that's it. I feel like novelists and writers in general would do well to occasionally have to write a script, because then you learn how to tell a story in the present, characterizing with what's available in the present and telling your story based on images. Those are not rules that should apply only to screenwriting.

Sometimes I think it's fashionable for writers to say plot is disgusting, that plot is just for the genre writer. I don't think that's true. I'm not a fan of genre writing, but plot isn't just for them. Plot is for us, too. We just have to be artful. I think the thing about "Towelhead" that I feel proud of is that it moves; it has plot.

AC: So did you plot "Towelhead" very carefully before you began?

AE: No, not at all. I had no idea what was going to happen. I only knew the elements. If I know what's going to happen, I'll be so bored that I won't want to write it. I want to have the same process of discovery that the reader has. I get a fleeting moment of excitement from my own work -- fleeting -- when something comes out and I say, "Oh, that's good." I'm not exactly the reader, but it's the closest thing I'm going to come to the thrill that the reader can have when the work is good. After that it dies, very quickly, and it becomes craft and you're separate from it.

I only knew I had this girl; I knew her mother was going to send her to Houston; I knew there was going to be a reservist with Playboys; I knew there was going to be this nice lady neighbor; there was going to be a problem with her dating a black boy; and the Gulf War. Then basically the story is how do those six things run together in about a billion different combinations, and something arises from all those combinations in the end. But it has to be a surprise. I'd be so bored. I think most writers do it that way. Some people do plot stuff out, but writing is organic: you can't know 100% what's going to happen. And if you're really fixed on this idea, "I've got to do what I outlined," you'll screw yourself.

 

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