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A Note from the Author About Writing HARBOR
I write out of necessity. There is no technique. I have no schedule. I believe in nothing about the hows and whys of writing other than the organizing clarity of desire. What does that feel like? For me, it is first fierceness about a story’s importance and then, over time, a self-abnegating allegiance to a story’s being told. It is also an awareness that a story will sink into the dark if I don’t record it. I am partial to orphans. The planet is overpopulated with stories already retold, competent books birthed and well-parented because the writer needed them to assume the identity of a writer. The best story is the one no one wants to hear until after they’ve heard it.
I write about others. Memoir scares me. Autobiographical fiction is my idea of a footless hands-tied purgatory. So where did my first novel come from? Harbor is an act of imagination. I made it up. It’s that simple and yet, there are footnotes. I was a journalist, and I reported on a terrorism plot that resulted in a Washington Post Sunday magazine story. My editor at the time, himself an accomplished non-fiction writer, felt the piece should focus on one individual. Including a second would break with a journalistic convention that one “character” is more powerful and comprehensible for the reader than two. It was not in my interest to argue, but I did, forcefully. My editor cut the second man out.
The excised man stayed with me. He became one of the signposts that pointed me away from journalism. At night, after working on reviews, essays and reported articles, I started putting down his story. I intended it to be concealed writing, a pointless project for only my eyes. It was not quite fiction, not quite fact, not quite polemic; it was a cry.
This unnamed writing at night was like a forbidden lover. It was on my mind all day. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I became a new person when with it. I had no fixed ideas about what it was or where it was going. All I knew was I felt such unbidden sympathy for the characters. Compassion, taboo in daily journalism, was my guiltiest pleasure. I had started with one man’s untold story. After a while, there was a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth–a world. Soon, the original excised man was only inspiration, quite different from the written character Aziz.
I endowed him with what I crave in fiction I read. Aziz is a moral creature with an inner life. He is what Isaiah Berlin calls an untamed human being, “with unextinguished passions and untrammeled imagination.” He is an example of no one thing. He cannot be reduced to an object of derision, satire or scorn. He is conscious, with all of the mysteries and presentiments that brings.
I put Aziz in a novel I would like to read—one that can be read many ways, as Albert Camus put it, “at the same time both obvious and obscure.” I wanted it fleet—no dragging around in sociology, political analysis, cultural critique or brand names. I wanted it generous—a big fat raft of religious faith, farce, sadistic violence, tenderness, nobility and desperation. I wanted prose that took risks. I wanted to be surprised.
These inclinations are with me as I write my second novel. The fierceness, the allegiance—they’re here. I’m not sure completely where the writing is going but I still have the sensation that I can’t help but go.